31 December, 2008

Cookery: Oxtail

Does anyone eat oxtail any more? Perfect winter food, perfect recession food. Recommended for a winter recession. You don't have to brown the meat. Start two days early.

For two people:
As much oxtail as your butcher will let you have. The small bits help the stock.

Half a bottle of red wine.

Marinade the one in the other overnight. Add a tin of Italian plum tomatoes and top up with water to cover the oxtail. Add 6 juniper berries, 2 tsp dried oregano, crushed garlic clove and a bayleaf. Simmer all day, topping up with water as necessary.

Following morning scrape off fat and reheat without lid so liquid evaporates. The oxtail browns while this happens. Keep turning it into the liquid.

When liquid reduced by half to two thirds serve with potatoes and the remaining 11 1/2 bottles of wine.


UK: House prices

The figures are in from the mortgage lenders. It seems that from the peak in Apr-Oct 2007 the average house price has declined about 12%, to where it was three years ago. That is to say what they put on between early '06 and mid '07 they have now lost.

Not quite such a disaster as the press would have us think. I suppose there's not much of a story in 'house prices don't decline much'

29 December, 2008

UK: Ken Clarke

Rumours, rumours, rumours.... that Ken Clarke is due to return to the shadow cabinet.

Now I, and I am sure thousands of others, could not vote Conservative with Clarke in any major role unless he made a clear statement that he agreed with Cameron's plans to repatriate powers from Brussels. My guess, however, is that he's not such a hypocrite.

Which can only mean....

Cyprus: Papadopoulos dies

Henry Kissinger was said to have left instructions with his staff that if he were found meddling in the Cyprus problem they should put him in a straightjacket. Now I have a feeling that not enough is being said and written on the subject, and the death of Tassos Papadopoulos a couple of weeks ago is a reminder.

What the EU would have us believe (both Greece and Cyprus are members) is that Cyprus is in a mess because of the intransigence of the Turks. No major country recognises Turkish Cyprus, effectively saying the whole island belongs to the Greeks. The truth, is, as so often, more complicated.

Cyprus became independent from Britain in 1960. The constitution provided for representation in parliament by the Greek and Turkish communities according to population, resulting in 70% Greek, 30% Turkish MPs and ministers. In addition the Turkish community was given the right of veto.

In the late 60s Greece was subject to a military coup, and was ruled by The Colonels, who wanted union between Greece and Cyprus (Enosis) and were dissatisfied with the Greek Cypriot leader, Archbishop Makarios. In July 1974 Greece engineered a coup d’état in Cyprus, suspending the constitution and excluding the Turkish community from the Government. Turkey appealed to Britain, as it should have done because Britain was one of the guarantors of the Cypriot settlement, but we did nothing. Accordingly Turkey invaded and sealed off the Northern part of the territory.

At the time of the coup, Papadopoulos was part of a group which was trying, by fair means or foul, to rid the island of ethnic Turks – what we would now know as ethnic cleansing. He became president in 2003, and in 2004 there was a UN plan to bring peace to the island, which the Turks accepted. Papadopoulos campaigned against it and it was rejected by the Greeks, resulting in a continuation of the partition of the island. His idea was that the larger, wealthier southern part of the island could bide its time and achieve a result on its own terms. It was never going to work. Papadopoulos was ousted from office in the elections in February this year and now he is dead. Perhaps Cyprus can look forward to peace.

27 December, 2008

Here they come

An extraordinary piece in the Telegraph, an interview with Andy Burnham. Mr Burnham, and this will shock some people, is a cabinet minister, with responsibility for culture and the media. One of the surprising parts is this: ‘Mr. Burnham also uses the interview to indicate that he will allocate money raised from the BBC’s commercial activities to fund other public-service broadcasting such as Channel Four.’

So: we pay for the BBC and if it does anything to make a profit this is allocated towards Mr. Ahmadinejad’s fee for his Christmas Message. I hope he is paid less than Jonathan Ross.

But the really gripping part was Mr. Burnham’s views on the internet. ‘If you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that Governments couldn’t reach. I think we are having to revisit that stuff seriously now. It’s true across the board in terms of content, harmful content, and copyright. Libel is [also] an emerging issue.’

I think we can see where this is going, can’t we? They will use the excuse of child porn or some such to enrage the Sun and the Mail, and then restrictions will be quietly extended to anyone posting anti New Labour ‘unhelpful’ propaganda. At least we know where the battle lines are.

Just to be clear exactly where this blog stands, Mr Burnham is a diminutive junior fascist, probably bullied at school. His boss has wrecked the British economy and will be seen as the worst Prime Minister of modern times.

In order also to fall foul of the pornography excuse I may publish lists of body parts in later posts.

Harold Pinter

While all the tributes to Pinter are pouring in, I thought I'd add my 2 centesimi-worth. I didn't like his plays, his poems, his ghastly left-wing politics and his defence of ethnic cleansing by Serbia. His only redeeming benefit was that he liked cricket, which should at least get you an introduction to the man with the keys at the pearly gates.

And when the One great scorer comes
To write against your name
He marks not if you won or lost
But how you played the game.

Pinter, though, was a tosser of the first water.

Benazir and the Beeb

We get BBC World here, and I have just gone through the astonishing experience of them observing a minute's silence for the anniversary of the death of Benazir Bhutto.

I knew Benazir slightly, years ago. She was self-obsessed, almost to the point of insanity, hedonistic, look-at-me hubristic and, of course, rich. In her time as a politician she enriched herself further at the expense of some of the poorest people on earth, her husband, who is now president, creaming off a slice of any major contract in the country. What the BBC fawningly describes as 'her vision for Pakistan' was that the keys of the treasury should be in her pocket and that her opponents should be in prison.

It is difficult to get the BBC to respect the minute's silence for our war dead. This was a disgrace, which must go into the pot with so many other incidents when we finally get to decide its future. Mene Mene Tekel upharsin. I hope it's soon.

25 December, 2008


'Rome, by all means, Rome' said Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, and who am I to disagree?

Here until Epiphany. Best wishes to all

24 December, 2008

Letter from Italy (Christmas)

It is said that everything in Italy has a political connection but you don’t expect it in the annual jamboree of calendars. Every year hundreds of starlets, aspiring models and C-list celebrities publish a collection of a dozen over-posed half naked photographs of themselves. The calendars are bought openly and shown in newspapers; wives buy them for their husbands. It seems strange to the less colourful world of northern Europe. Amongst the many this year are a couple each showing a dozen female students, one lot against the educational reforms of Maria Stella Gelmini the other in favour. My vote? Those against the reforms start at a disadvantage because they are fully clothed, and the education minister herself is better looking than any of them.

The astonishing tale of Prime Minister Berlusconi continues. Having won 47% of the vote at the general elections, his coalition is now polling over 50%. He himself has a 60% approval rating. The left-wing Partito Democratico are increasingly looking like yesterday’s men. Berlusconi is making noises about the President being directly elected (he is currently elected by MPs); it may be he has a candidate in mind.

Alitalia goes from weakness to weakness. Christmas travellers were left stranded at Fiumicino due to a wildcat strike by baggage handlers. Eventually the minister for transport had to tell them it was illegal but they have threatened further action later. The new owners, the CAI consortium, will be realising that attitudes have to change: it is not enough to concentrate on the numbers.

Bad weather coming down from the north, the recession and a minor earthquake in Parma have not dampened Italian enthusiasm for Christmas. Romans will spend an average of €270 per head. The trains are full with people rejoining their families ‘Natale con I suoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi’ (Christmas with your family, Easter with whom you please). In the wake of falling demand for Champagne, sales of spumante and prosecco are up 10%, and exports to Britain more than double. Cin Cin!

Internal Minister Roberto Maroni has announced that the Ferraris, Maseratis and Porsches confiscated from Mafiosi will become part of the police car pool. This has generated a new enthusiasm and a further 99 have been arrested this week.

Giuseppe Rebaudi, who six months ago married his sweetheart after living together for 56 years has died aged 101…….in the arms of his housekeeper. Forza!

Auguri a tutti

20 December, 2008

UK: global cooling

From the BBC's environment correspondent (I'll repeat, that's the BBC)

"The world in 2008 has been cooler than at any time since the turn of the century, scientists say.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) notes that temperatures remained about 0.3C above the 1961-1990 average.

One recent analysis suggested there may be no warming for about the next decade.

What is beyond dispute is that 2008 saw temperatures a shade below preceding years"

Could we please, therefore, have less of this stuff about global warming? Could we start telling the truth, however un-trendy it may sound? Please? Isn't that what independent news services are there for?

The motor industry

In pushing for a bail out of the motor industry, I believe Barack Obama has made his first mistake, before even taking the oath. Detroit's business plan has for years been unrealistic. The three companies have been making cars which no one wants to buy, shored up by a tax break on SUVs. That has been enough government interference. They cannot export their way out of trouble because no one in Europe or Asia wants something the size of a truck with an enormous inefficient engine, and which doesn't go round corners too well. The industry should go into bankruptcy and anyone foolish enough to own shares in it must take the hit.

In the UK, Jaguar Land Rover was bought just a year ago by one of the world's most successful businessmen, Ratan Tata. His business plan must have seen the downturn coming, and it would be perfectly preposterous for the hard hit British taxpayer to bail him out. I doubt the expertise exists in Lord Mandelson's department to understand all this, but they should at least have an inkling as to how badly various governments have run the British Motor industry in the past - I should say UK because De Lorean was the creature of the Northern Ireland Office.

I suspect they will spray our money around just to cause the Tories difficulty. Thanks.

18 December, 2008

UK: odds on the euro?

I am told that William Hill are opening a book on whether the UK will join the euro and when. The odds:

During 2009: 20/1
During 2010: 14/1
During 2011: 10/1
After 2014: 2/7

I should have thought the 2010 bet is the best: Labour win the general election and join immediately. But neither scenario looks likely to me. Good luck to the punters.

17 December, 2008

UK: the Post Office

When discussing the future of the Post Office / Royal Mail we should not forget the part played by Michael Heseltine. The old fraud could have sold off the Post Office at a profit years ago, when delivery companies were gearing up to meet the expected burgeoning of demand for home deliveries from internet purchases. But like every other decision he faced, he muffed it. There was talk of it being a meeting place for old people, as if that were any business of the State.

There is no reason why the State should own one means of communication - the most old fashioned - while the private sector runs all the others.

Now the Post Office loses 6p for every letter sent and its pension fund, helped downwards by Gordon Brown's removal of tax relief on dividends, is apparently £6bn in deficit.

The plan is to sell off one third (it should be all of it), insisting on single price delivery, even to the most remote areas, but guarantee the pension funds payments. This way the government gets to take what is in the pension fund (£20 billion apparently) to make the national debt look a bit lower, but of course saddle future generations with this vast liability.

The Tories should expose this sleight of hand, and insist that the whole thing is sold of, pensions shortfall and all, to the highest bidder, without any restrictions as to what the purchaser does with it. Without this daft idea we could have had public internet and fax points in every village by now, at a fraction of the cost.

16 December, 2008

Europe: Germany stronger and meaner

Much has been said about Peer Steinbruck’s ‘crass Keynesianism’ comment including Gordon Brown trying it on that this was a piece of internal politicking, (since denied by another member of the German government) but people are beginning to ask what the Germans really should be doing in this crisis. The German government has announced a €32bn stimulus package but analysts say this is largely stuff which has already been announced (oddly, an old Brown trick).

Ambrose Evans Pritchard, in a forceful piece in today’s Telegraph, believes Germany’ is in breach of EMU's implicit contract, and that it should reflate, using its surplus’. But why? ‘The rules of the game are that surplus countries should boost demand’, says AE-P. Well, I’ve never seen these rules.

The Stability and Growth Pact limits countries from going off the rails, applying ceilings to budget deficit and debt (broken by many countries, including Germany) but there is nothing in the Pact suggesting that in a recession the strong should reflate to help the weak. Germany has suffered and has held wages down in a way that France and Italy have not, their industry is now competitive, as evidenced by a trade surplus the size of China’s and they feel now that they should be allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labours, rather than having to bail out the less prudent.

This will make Germany stronger in Europe in the long term, and if we don’t like that, we can reflect that it is our own fault.

15 December, 2008

Italy: Alitalia, what's in a name?

The CAI Group finally took over Alitalia on 12th December. Unfortunately, however, it is not allowed to use the name Alitalia until 12th January.

Quite how one is supposed to book a ticket is not explained, but I've a feeling that isn't going to be much of a problem for them.

UK: priorities

I was due to be speaking on Radio Solent this morning about the benefits or otherwise of joining the euro, but was bumped off due to an overrunning discussion about the voting on Strictly Come Dancing.

14 December, 2008

Italy: The Tiber in flood

The picture shows a boat crashing into the Ponte Sant'Angelo in one of the worst high waters Rome has seen for years.

All over the centre of the capital there are marks showing where the high waters reached a century or so ago, most of them at waist height (so this is nothing to do with global warming).

The waters have eased a little now, but the Italian capital was within inches of disaster.

13 December, 2008

UK: BBC: Ed Stourton

I have just heard that the BBC has fired Ed Stourton from the Today programme. Stourton is an excellent journalist with one thing against him: he is a little bit posh. The BBC tried to get rid of him before, using the excuse that he was separated fro his wife an was living with another woman. Naturally they didn't fire Andrew Marr when it transpired he had fathered a child with Alice Miles, the Times journalist. Marr is 'one of us', innit?

This is really awful of the BBC. I have just been listening to their 24 hr news service, where everyone has some sort of regional accent and some daft Scottish presenter couldn't make herself understood to the reporter on the ground, referring to our 'Trips' in Afghanistan.

The BBC has become so awful over the last five years that it now seems impossible that it can carry on as before. We need a very large scalpel.

EU: the Irish problem

The extraordinary story of the EU Constitution rolls on. It is rejected by France and Holland (and would have been by several others, who didn't get around to voting), it is given a different title 'The Lisbon Treaty' and that is rejected by Ireland. A stranger would have thought that was it, but it is an indication of how inured we are to the anti-democratic nature of the European political class that no one was really surprised when the Irish were told to vote again.

The problem now facing the eurocrats (and don't forget the livelihood of many of them may depend on this) is that if the Irish are given the same old rubbish they will vote no again, probably with an even bigger margin because of the insult to their intelligence. But if there are any actual changes to the Treaty then they have to be put to all 27 member states again (without, I suggest, a snowball's chance in hell of being approved).

So they have to make changes without doing so. This will be in the form of 'clarifications' of the text, and I fully expect some Belgian lawyer to say he has looked at it carefully and it is quite in order.

That is the nature of the regime under which we live.

12 December, 2008

UK: Sark

When is feudalism not feudalism? When is not-feudalism feudalism? There have been strange goings on in Sark.

For over a century the island has been under the feudal rule of the Beaumont family. By all accounts the Sarkees were happy with this rather strange arrangement but the Barclay brothers, who live on the nearby island of Brecqhou and have been heavy investors in Sark, were not. They forced the island to have its first democratic election, which has just taken place. The Barclays set out in a newsletter who their favoured candidates were and whom they disliked: one had ‘a socialist streak’ and another was referred to as ‘a feudal talibanist’.

Unfortunately, and this is the problem with democracy, isn’t it, David and Frederick?, only two of the Barclays’ approved people were elected, out of nine.

Now, in a fit of peevishness, the Barclays have stopped their investment in the island and 140 people will lose their jobs. These poor folk must be thinking they were better off with feudalism.

My suggestion to the Barclays is that they spend less time in the Channel islands, where they are less than popular, and more time trying to rescue the Daily Telegraph, which they also own. Now known as the Labourgraph, its editorial line is skewed and it is haemorrhaging readership and journalists at an alarming rate.

10 December, 2008

UN: Human Rights are 60!

Today is the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Britain played its part in drawing this up, as it did with the European Declaration on Human Rights which was drawn from it; and the British Human Rights Act is taken from that.

But I must say I sometimes wonder what we have got. The Declaration contains a number of worthy aims: Article 5 says ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’; here is Article 19: 'Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression’

But it seems to me we have seen this time and again: making a worthy expression of what is good makes us feel better but doesn’t get us any further on. Since December 1948 we know that it is only the bad guys who torture; has torture stopped? Now we know that only evil countries prevent freedom of expression. Imagine! And this has lead to other unworldly wordiness, as with Tony Blair’s ‘handguns’ law, the result being that only the bad guys have guns; or the landmines declaration so beloved of the late Princess of Wales which results in the British Army not being allowed landmines but the people they are fighting having them anyway.

Some say that the value of the UDHR is to lay down a fundamental law so that even though they didn’t actually sign it, the likes of Radko Mladic are subject to it. But what is the use of that? Did we prosecute China for breach of Article 15 ‘Everyone has the right to a nationality’ or Article 21 ‘Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives’. And how many articles is Mugabe in breach of?

It simply hasn’t been convenient to enforce the UNDHR in many places so we simply haven’t, which means that every tin pot dictator knows it is worthless. I think that it would be better if instead of making cosy social democratic love talk we shut up, unless we were prepared to invade anyone in breach of our list of rights, and we’re not, and simply set an example in our own country for the rest of the world to follow.

09 December, 2008

Letter from Italy: the Immacolata

It is hard to imagine a time when Europe disagreed so much about the economic facts. Whilst Britain almost revels in the headlines of falling house prices, empty shops and unemployment, the Germans rather think it is something happening to other people and the Italians, well the Italians aren’t sure. One reason is that the present downturn began in the financial markets, where Britain is especially strong and Italy is weak. Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti announced with delight that the Italian banks had not got round to investing in these new-fangled credit instruments and were therefore strong. Italians do not have a debt culture and the average family saves a bit. Whilst Italy’s governmental debt is high, if you add personal debt the figure is about the same as Britain. At the start, it all looked like a problema anglo-sassone.

Italy is not of course immune to the second wave of the crisis – the business downturn. But again things are slightly different here. There was already an economic malaise in the country; people feared that Italy was slipping behind her neighbours month by month, year by year, due to the peculiarities of its economy: rigid labour markets, stultifying bureaucracy, massive black economy. Italy knows it is not immune from the happenings in the rest of the world; it is dependent on exports and if Ferrari and Gucci are to survive people worldwide have to be buying their products, but there is almost a comfort in knowing that others are in the same boat. It might even be their fault.

Monday 8th December, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, is traditionally the first day of Christmas shopping. Italy is not likely to have a disastrous Christmas because family values are entrenched and the presents are a part of that, also because many Italians are paid with a thirteenth month and so have cash in their pockets around this time.

The underlying Italian economy is a network of small family firms, heavily geared to export. It is the totems of the economy which Italy doesn’t do well. Alitalia’s takeover has still not gone smoothly, despite a determination to proceed even without the approval of the pilots and the cabin crew. What is increasingly certain is that it cannot survive on its own. The planes are old and the working practices so outdated that essentially Alitalia is a collection of landing slots and not much else. Air France is favoured as the lucky partner. There are stories of short time working at FIAT, and whilst the CEO Sergio Marchionne is generally regarded as a miracle worker, he has warned that the car industry can no longer survive in its present form: global consolidation is the only way forward. Previously a black hole swallowing cash at an alarming rate, FIAT is now regarded as an attractive partner. ENEL, the national electricity giant, reports industrial usage down 30%. The bright side of this is that it was struggling to supply its market due to a failure to upgrade to modern gas-fired power stations and now might limp through the winter without power cuts. The Venice Mose project, consisting of a flood barrier which can be raised on hydraulic rams, is now likely to go ahead following exceptionally high waters in recent weeks.

Politically Silvio Berlusconi is in a stronger position than ever, in part due to the fragmentation of the left, and in part due to some rather modest successes on the Naples rubbish crisis and Alitalia. A raft of measures on security, corruption, education and the economy have progressed almost unopposed, whilst he has secured immunity from prosecution in time for the prosecution’s winding up in the Mills trial expected before Christmas. He was criticised for increasing VAT on his media rivals, Sky, but with a magician’s sleight of hand produced a letter from the EU asking him to do so. As Greece, Spain and Portugal suffer from the downturn, Berlusconi’s Italy looks stronger internationally, with a greater acceptance in Europe, for example with its plan to relax environmental laws on cost grounds, which many agree with. It seems likely that in the next 12 months Italy’s economy will overtake Britain’s as fifth in the world, which would be nearly as important as winning the World Cup.

04 December, 2008

UK: Speaker and Serjeant 2

An apology to Damian Green: someone had told me that his name was spelled Damien, as in Hirst, so I didn't bother to check. I now learn the correct spelling and that we are the same age and were at University together.

There will be no shortage of lawyers, barrack room and other, on l'affaire Green, and indeed there has been some well-informed comment on my last post. I need not put my two penn'orth in, except to say that I have been told that the permission for the police to search without a warrant, I think S8 of the PACE, may not apply to a Royal Palace, only to you and me. I'd be interested to hear opinion on this.

What the law should be may be different. A whistleblower is stealing but of course there should be the defence of public interest. This would seem to me to apply to the 5,000 uncleared illegal immigrants including one cleaning the Commons and another guarding the PM's car, but not to a list of Labour defectors over a piece of legislation.

An MP may, I suppose, therefore be in the position of receiving stolen goods, but the public interest defence should apply even more, with the added caveat that he wouldn't know it was in the public interest until he had read it.

I am not impressed with this idea of 'grooming', that an MP might induce a whistleblower to get some information. An MP should be regarded like a taxi with its light on, available for the business of receiving information at all times. He doesn't need to say he will receive information enabling him to hold the government to account, of course he will.

I do not believe, as some commentators and MPs have said, that the police should under no circumstances be allowed to search an MP's office. We have had in the past MPs who were sympathisers with terrorist groups in N Ireland (Bobby Sands was of course an MP although never took up his seat) and we don't want them using the Palace of Westminster to store their data, right under the noses of the establishment.

Lastly it is not in the Tories' interest to get rid of Martin: another Labour speaker would be elected in his place. He should be allowed to go quietly at the general election.

03 December, 2008

UK: Speaker and Serjeant

The Speaker, Michael Martin, seems to have dropped the Serjeant at arms, Jill Pay, into the doodoo. He says he was informed by her that Damien Green's office was going to be searched, but only that. Questions still surround Mr Martin as to whether he raised a complaint or even showed any interest at the news but the spotlight will be on Mrs Pay. It would appear that she did not ask the police if they had a warrant (they didn't) but let them in anyway.

It will be remembered that the office of Serjeant at arms is in the gift of the Queen and has gone traditionally to a senior military officer. Martin got rid of the last one (Major General Peter Grant Peterkin) and appointed Mrs Pay.

Her Majesty was said to be outraged and refused to receive Mrs Pay, but I am afraid it is yet another example of her abrogating her powers, not to the people, but to the executive.

Pay's previous job was deputy director of the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative at the Department of Employment, and if that doesn't have a New Labour flavour to it I don't know what does.

I have written before about New Labour's ability to get their own people into senior positions in all walks of life (Andrew Marr is a prime example at the BBC). I am afraid MPs are going to have to ask themselves (pointless asking her) if she would have acted in this way if it had been a Labour MP under arrest.

UK: The Queen's English

I was a little bit surprised to hear that the Queen says 'enhance' to rhyme with 'pants'

Has someone taught her this? Did she go to the BBC's pronunciation unit?

I think we should be told

UK: the euro (2)

What José Manuel Barroso said was that he had had discussions about joining the euro 'with the people who mattered in Britain'.

Peter Mandelson has denied it, and assuming he is not lying (impossible, surely? - Ed) there can only be one.

He has been talking to Jonathan Ross.

UK: Premium Bonds

The applicable interest rate to the prize pool on premium bonds (National Savings) has been reduced to 1.8% meaning that even with the maximum investment of £30,000 you could expect only £540 a year on average, and are likely to get the £1m jackpot once every 1,851 years.

Seems even ERNIE's feeling the pinch

UK: the euro?

There's been a fair bit of talk in recent days about Britain joining the euro. Not just from Mr Barroso, the jefe de la junta in Brussels, but whispers in markets, too.

It scarcely need be said that it would be barking mad: even in the short term there is the problem that the largest economy, Germany, has a low budget deficit and doesn't believe in borrowing to get out of recession (Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, alluded to it saying 'Just because all the lemmings jump off the cliff at the same time doesn't make it the right decision); in the long term the structural differences are likely to widen.

But it seems even dafter politically. There has to be an election by Spring 2010. Just imagine the headlines in the Sun if Brown were to attempt this having 'abolished the pound', 'sold out to Europe'.

No, mes frères, I think not.

02 December, 2008

UK: new police chief

Among the runners and riders for the job of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police are:

Bob Quick, the head of the specialist unit which carried out the raid on Damien Green

Acting commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, who authorised the raid

The head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Ken Jones, who is fiercely supportive of the way the Met have behaved.

I wrote some time ago that the way to decide which candidate is suitable is to ask them to list in order the public's concerns and match their answers to a survey of the public. Clearly these three are miles off target and should be rejected.

Unfortunately the position is in the gift of the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.

01 December, 2008

France: journalist arrested

While Britain seethes over the arrest of an opposition politician, life across the channel doesn't seem that much better.

A senior journalist with Libération, Vittorio de Filippis, was arrested and handcuffed in front of his children in a 6.30am raid, for an allegedly defamatory comment left on Libération's website by a reader, two years ago.

Apparently Emperor Sarkozy is holding discussions about the constitutional position of the press in France. He might start by looking at this.

30 November, 2008

UK: Liam Byrne

This has just come to my attention. Liam Byrne has delivered an 11 page instruction to his staff entitled ‘Working with Liam Byrne’, including such useful titbits as ‘Never put anything to me unless you understand it and can explain it to me in 60 seconds’, ‘The room should be cleared before I arrive in the morning. I like the papers set out in the office before I get in’, and the vital ‘I like a cappuccino when I come in, an espresso at 3pm and soup at 12.30-1pm’

And I loved this: that officials should tell him "not what you think I should know, but you expect I will get asked" – in other words he is less worried about doing his job than defending himself against questioning, New Labour to his roots..

This is just the sort of self-absorbed little prat you wouldn’t want to have any part in running the country.

Mr Byrne is Minister for the Cabinet Office

28 November, 2008

UK: Terror Police

The news that the Shadow Immigration Minister, Damian Green, has been arrested by counter terrorism police is genuinely staggering.

Green has received on a number of occasions government documents and released them to the press. These include a memo by the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to the effect that crime was likely to rise in the recession.

I am not quite sure what crime Green is alleged to have committed - the police say 'aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office' which would seem to indict the entire parliamentary Labour Party. What is most disturbing is that the arrest seems to have taken place under anti-terrorism laws. Police were permitted by the Speaker and the Commons authorities to search Mr Green's House of Commons Office, which I should have thought carried grave constitutional implications.

Points to note are that one of the aggrieved parties is the Home Secretary who would presumably have authorised this and that it was the last day at work for Sir Ian Blair, the outgoing Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police.

When people complain that we are giving too much power to the Executive under the Anti-Terrorism measures they are told they are being soft on terror. When the government uses anti-terrorism measures to pursue its agenda on something other than terror,, we are surely justified in questioning the whole edifice.

Forward Mr Cameron. Let's get to the bottom of this.

27 November, 2008

UK: I'm a sleb

Of all the TV celebrities I have seen over the years, the one I like the least, other than Des O'Connor, obviously, is Esther Rantzen. No, it's not the teeth, or the alarming dress sense, it's the sickening sanctimoniousness.

Anyway, I read that, in a rare lapse into quality programming by ITV, she was, for the viewers' delight, buried alive with some cockroaches. Then, and I can hardly believe I am writing this, they let her out!

UK: a new High Street

It seems that both Woolworths and MFI have gone belly-up at the same time. They are in large part responsible for the tawdriness of Britain's homes and its High Streets and few, I suspect, will miss them.

Congratulations to the sub-ed on the Independent who came up with 'Chain Store Massacre'

26 November, 2008

UK: Duke Mandy?

The MPs on the Business Select Committee want Lord Mandelson to be able to address the House of Commons. The last peer to do so was the Duke of Wellington. That was so he could receive the thanks of the people's representatives for steering us through the Napoleonic crisis.

One possible response from the Government is that since Gordon Brown was not elected Prime Minister there seems no logical reason why the Business Secretary should be elected either.

Another is that we wait until the country is on an economic par with Rwanda, Mandy spins it as an incredible success for the government and appears, blushing and modest, to receive the thanks of Parliament.

Yes, I think that should do it.

25 November, 2008

France: Emperor Sarkozy?

'L'Etat, c'est moi'. The author of this phrase, Louis XIV, wasn't going to be seeking re-election, or even election. He was the Sun King, and had a divine right to rule. It is a statement, pleasing in its Gallic succinctness, which we might archive as exactly what democrats don't believe in.

But it seems to be what France will get, now that the Socialists, the only serious opposition, have elected Martine Aubry. Mrs Aubry is the daughter of Jacques Delors, which would in itself not be enough to scare the French voter off (although it would cause havoc at the Sun newspaper), but she is a left wing firebrand. She became a minister in the Mitterand government and is the author of the law (la loi Aubry) which prevented people from working more than 35 hours per week, causing massive structural (not temporary)unemployment. Even the French will be able to see that she is too barking mad to be taken seriously and they therefore have the sole choice of Sarkozy at the next election, a man who is beginning to make Jacques Chirac look like a self-deprecating populist.

God Help France

UK: Petrol Prices

I am happy to pass on a message from the excellent www.petrolprices.com reminding us that whilst VAT has been reduced by 2.5%, petrol duty in this budget has gone up by 2p, thus cancelling it out.

Of course the reduction in VAT is temporary but the petrol duty hike will not be.

Without the taxes a litre of fuel would be 25p

Changing your name

Gideon was the judge of awful majesty chosen by God to save his people Israel and to abolish their worship of idols.

For Israel read Britain and for idols read debt and you have the perfect analogy.

I know I go on about this but Osborne's only mistake (in inshore waters) has been to change his name.

Crisis: Brown in denial

I wrote before that Gordon Brown (I don't think anyone believes Alistair Darling has got anything to do with this) is trying to pile on more debt, concealing it like a pebble on a beach, a beach full of pebbles of his own debt, and of that of others, which he can explain away as being necessary to cope with the recession. Yesterday would have seemed a triumph in the concealer's art, had we not all now got so weary of him that our first assumption was that a lie was going to emerge from his ventriloquist's dummy's lips.

George Osborne, whose real name is Gideon, hampered with boyish looks and a with a voice like a bored child on a motorway journey, made a fairly good speech, I thought. He spotted at an early stage the fact that this is all electorally driven: Brown has to call an election by Spring 2010 so he is inflating the economy like Dennis Healey only more so, in the hope that he can warm it up in time. Darling said that the recession will be over by the end of 2009 and that thereafter there will be a surge in growth.

Actually I don't think Darling is far wrong in this, but wrong enough for it to be fatal. I have said from the beginning (now I'm sounding like a politician) that we will see the first signs of a levelling at the end of 2009 but that the whole of next year will be bad. Darling is two fiscal quarters early in his guess/hope and that will mean, in my view, that we won't have that warm sense of bien-etre in time to make us vote Labour.

Taking aside the question as to whether a fiscal stimulus is a good idea (and I am reluctantly with Gideon George on this that we simply can't afford it) we can also quibble at the method of delivery of the stimulus. The people who are most likely to spend money in a hurry are the poor. A major part of their budget is food and children's clothes, which don't attract VAT, so a VAT cut will help little. It would have been better to send each one a cheque, but it would have been for such a paltry amount (the cupboard is bare) that Brown would have been found out even by the electorate whose votes he needs. Again, politically, not economically driven.

Our best hope of emerging from recession is probably not consumer spending (still less government spending) but exports, which would grow on the boost of a weak pound. With so few chips to play with we should have thrown them all on this number. The problem is that there is a time lag before this works into the real economy and that will be too late for Brown. The man who grew famous on the back of a benign economic climate created by his predecessor might well find he is handing the recovery over to his opponents. Sweet irony.

22 November, 2008

UK: BBC: Ross

We have now received the report of the BBC Trust. It appears that the BBC had lent a producer to the private company Vanity Productions which produced the Radio 2 show. BBC management relied on this man's judgment while he of course was following the instructions of Vanity Productions. This is a management failure and management must be held accountable.

Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, when asked if further action would be taken against Jonathan Ross, said that ' It is not the job of the trust to make decisions about the terms and conditions of performers or the sanctions that are applied to them' but in the next breath said '"We are very clear that the director general has taken the right action with respect to Jonathan Ross."

Well, it's one thing, or the other. Either he has a view on Ross' suspension as a punishment, or he isn't allowed a view. It seems to me that Sir Michael, a Labour Party apparatchik who said he would be completely independent, believes poor Rossy has suffered enough.

Charles Moore, who edited the Telegraph in the days when it was a Conservative newspaper, says he won't pay his licence fee renewal if Ross is still working for the BBC

20 November, 2008

Italy: olive picking

The six weeks between the beginning of November and mid December are olive picking time in Umbria.
Here the olives are high quality. To be extra virgin oil you must be less than 2% acidity. The average for Umbria is 0.2% and the average for our mill is 0%. The oil is not green and peppery but soft and fruity.
The olives are combed from the trees rather than beaten out of them.

UK: prostitution: a red light to this idea

The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, egged on, it is said, by Harriet Harman, is bringing forward legislation aimed (eventually) at outlawing prostitution. The plan is that the punter would have to show that the girl is not trafficked, or being run or coerced by a pimp. The proposals have had a mixed reception in the press.

How is it that people who say we cannot ban abortion because it will simply ‘go underground’ to the detriment of women cannot see that the same holds true for prostitution. We will never eliminate prostitution; all we can do is stop the trafficking and the worse aspects of the pimping.

Melanie McDonagh, in the Telegraph, has a particularly harebrained piece. Welcoming the proposals as ‘freeing women from sexual slavery’, she accepts ‘Even I can see that it might be difficult for a punter to find out from a prostitute whether she is indeed under a pimp's control.’ Indeed so, Melanie. Yet you support the idea of making him guilty unless he can prove himself innocent.

‘The truth is’ opines this Thinker, ‘that nobody knows the sheer extent of trafficked women. The Home Secretary thinks it may be as many as 70 per cent of them. The Home Office says that as many as 4,000 trafficked women are working as prostitutes at any one time.’. There are in fact more than 80,000 prostitutes in the UK. To suggest that 70% of them are trafficked (56,000) is clearly drivel. If it is the 4,000 figure that would be 5%. Serious, and it should be targeted by police, but not serious enough to start making people prove their innocence.

So, says Ms McDonagh, ‘It would be next to impossible to implement comprehensively, but if police are trying to crack down on prostitution in any area, it will help them do it.

The idea behind having laws is that they apply to everyone. Passing laws in the knowledge that they will only be implemented if the police want to is render the process arbitrary. And, incidentally, to put an unfair burden on police.

This is bad lawmaking, designed not for the benefit of women but to earmark a political stance for Smith and Harman. We must hope that parliament see through it, but it is not much of a hope.

16 November, 2008

Italy: Alitalia: When will they learn?

An important figure was missing from last week's Rome Energy Meeting, a high-level conference on the future of world energy supplies.

The Conference was due to be opened by Russia's energy minister Anatoly B. Yanovsky but unfortunately he was booked on Alitalia, who cancelled the flight.

Crisis: Hiding the pebble

‘Where do you hide a pebble? On a beach

Where do you hide an acorn? In a forest’

Thus wrote GK Chesterton of a General who had killed his rival and then hidden his corpse among the bodies of men he had thrown into battle just for that purpose.

It is in this respect that the rise in Gordon Brown’s popularity should be seen, and his posturings in the G20 about unfunded tax cuts and government spending. Brown spent our money like a drunken sailor when times were good. Now the worldwide credit crunch is a godsend for him: other, more prudent economies will be reflating, borrowing more because they are in a position to do so. Thus Brown thinks he can hide our overly large deficit in the forest of IOUs swirling around the world. It all looks as if the debt levels in the British economy are someone else’s fault and we’re in the same boat as Germany. Brown has lied about the level of UK debt, even contradicting the Office of National Statistics. He must be splitting his sides that the Tories haven’t called him to account for this.

And it is in this light that the recent criticism of George Osborne must be seen. He believes, and so do I, that we cannot spend our way out of a recession, and that the room for fiscal loosening is too small: already the markets are moving out of sterling, tiring of the relentless splurge of government debt, at a time when we are reducing the return on it. Osborne isn’t talking sterling down, he is reporting what the markets are saying, which is that they don’t want any more IOUs with Gordon Brown’s signature on, unless they pay the 5% they were getting before, either by an increase in the return (which is hardly likely to happen, we’re reducing rates) or such a reduction in sterling that they make the money on the currency return (that is to say that the pounds to buy the debt cost them 20% less than they used to).

Something along the lines of Nick Clegg’s suggestion might be worth considering. Given extra money the poor tend to spend it and the rich tend to save it (perhaps a loose generalisation, I should like to see some figures on this). Right now we need spending, so a tax cut for low wage earners funded by a tax increase on high wage earners might make the difference: stressing that it is a temporary measure and things will return to the status quo ante after a year.

Borrowing is a tax on the next generation. We need to take our medicine, not hide the problem on the beach.

14 November, 2008

Prince Charles

Today is the 60th birthday of HRH The Prince of Wales.

The older I get the more I find myself hoping for a new constitutional settlement. Other than sorting out the Union, the over-inflated powers of the executive and the problem of Europe, I think one of the most urgent things to do is find a role for this intelligent, energetic man. It is a tragedy that the monarchy and successive governments have been unable or unwilling to do so.

It would be the best thing for us, and the best birthday present we could give him.

13 November, 2008


Just heard that Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix's drummer, has died, aged 61.

At times when no one knew what Hendrix was going to do next, Mitch and the bassist Noel Redding, who died five years ago, kept the thing together.

Mitch had also been a highly successful sessions musician, and was still playing, on tour in Los Angeles.

RIP Mitch

11 November, 2008

BBC: hypocrisy

Sam Mason is, or rather was, a host on Radio Bristol. She made a call to a taxi company, not on air, asking them not to send an Asian to pick up her daughter. For this she has been sacked.

Jonathan Ross, who makes £6m a year, made a number of obscene and offensive 'phone calls to a septuagenarian, which did go out on air, as he and his co-host intended, and for this he has been suspended for 3 months.

The reason for the difference in the two cases is that for the bien pensant lefties who run the BBC, racism, even mild as in the case of Miss Mason, is the worst crime you can commit. They even feel able to interfere into a private matter between Miss Mason and the taxi company. For them Jonathan Ross' behaviour, even though almost certainly a criminal offence, is simply 'edgy'.

What are we going to do about these people? Will it be possible to change the BBC without breaking it up? I fear not.

UK: Top Cop

The closing date for applications for the job of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, vacated by the dreadful Sir Ian Blair, is 1st December. There are five or six serious contenders, two of whom are women. The job pays abut £250K a year and the successful candidate will take on a budget of £3.5bn and around 50,000 staff.

How to judge between half a dozen no doubt excellent candidates? Easy.

Tell them to list what they think are the main preoccupations of the public with regard to crime, then match the officers' guess with one of the many surveys (Clue: it isn't any kind of discrimination or anything to do with motor cars which heads the list).

Then the successful candidate should report annually to the public on progress with the crimes the public is worried about.

EU: another year, another fraud

It is for the fourteenth year running, we read, that the Court of Auditors has refused to sign off on the EU accounts. The EU don’t know or can’t prove where a large part of the £70 billion a year budget goes. I suppose that since this happens every year we have grown to accept it.

They will say that it is not in Brussels, but in member countries, that the money goes missing, but this is no defence. And it is not simply that some fairly trivial paperwork is missing or a system not set up.

This could not be happening without fraud on a massive scale.

For fourteen years! About a fifth of this £70 bn is contributed by Britain, so we are condoning it, at the very least.

In many ways this is a disaster of accountability rather than accounting. Every year they say they will improve but never do anything to clear the matter up: they really don’t believe that we, the public, have any right to interfere in their spending. It is high time we replaced them with people who do.

There is only one solution. David Cameron must declare that if the accounts are not properly audited within a reasonable period – say 2012 – he, as Prime Minister, will withdraw funding from the EU. He should encourage other realists, the Czechs (who hold the rotating presidency after December), the Poles, the Irish, to do the same.

Otherwise it will simply carry on.

09 November, 2008

UK: ID cards

More about the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, from Guido. The excellent anti-ID card movement, NO2ID, has apparently pocketed a water glass she was drinking from, and intend to take her fingerprints and reproduce them on a plastic foil stamp, which will enable anyone to leave her fingerprints anywhere.

Love it.

Italy: Alitalia delays!

The pilots and stewards of Alitalia, who have not signed the new contracts demanded by the rescue body CAI, have decided to work to rule. This involves implementing in full the pre-take off procedure (what do they usually do?) and they advise that many planes will be taking off late!

Who'd have thought it?

08 November, 2008

Italy: education, education, education

There has been a fair amount of street protest in recent weeks over changes to the Italian education system introduced by the minister Mariastella Gelmini (pictured as an antidote to the awful picture of Jacqui Smith and her ID card in the previous post). A student was injured in a recent confrontation with police.

In fact it is the protesters who are the conservatives here. They want the system to remain the same. But it cannot. Education, particularly in the south, has been one of the worst pork barrel areas of Italian politics. Jobs have been handed out in return for favours. Like in so much of the Italian state apparatus, there are far too many teachers and they are badly paid. Gelmini’s proposal is a reduction of some 87,000 through natural wastage, a single teacher per class at primary level and a bonus of 7,000 euros for the best teachers.

Interestingly, Italian primary school children are ahead of most of their European counterparts, but by the time they finish secondary school they are behind. There is no Italian university in the world’s top 100. The reason is the kids are taught by rote, which works well at primary level, but later on they should start being taught to think for themselves and this doesn’t happen. A typical university lecture would be the professor reading from his own book and not accepting questions.

There is much to do, but Ms Gelmini has made a start.

07 November, 2008

UK: The BBC and the ring of truth

Here's an interesting story on the BBC website concerning the Home Secretary.

"Jacqui Smith says public demand means people will be able to pre-register for an ID card within the next few months.
The cards will be available for all from 2012 but she said: "I regularly have people coming up to me and saying they don't want to wait that long."

There are people coming up to her (by chance? where do they find her? aren't they fended off by her bodyguards?) begging for an ID card now. Why? What have they to gain? Are they unable to prove their identity? Don't they have passports? How have they managed this long?

Richard Ingrams, when editor of Private Eye used to say that as well as checking facts you had to look to see if a story had the 'ring of truth'. This palpably doesn't and shouldn't have gone out.

If the BBC shows itself to be little more than an agency for passing on government propaganda to the people, it is going to face even more calls for it to be cut back. And if Ms Smith thinks we are going to fall for this sort of bilge she hasn't the brains for the job she has been given.

06 November, 2008

US Elections: change you can hope for

Not long ago a young friend wanted to interview for a job in a management consultancy. Being a cynic, I told her that if she wanted a job she had to use the word 'change' during the interview and that if she could mention it more than twice they would make her a manager. It worked, of course.

The same seems to go for politicians. The change we need, the change you can believe in, the candidate for change, it all seems to excite the voters into an endogenous righteous frenzy when they are a bit fed up with the way things are. Obama has been very careful to specify as little as possible what this change is going to be (other than the colour of the President's skin, which I admit is a change) and in my opinion, despite huge gains in Congress which ought to give him an easy time, the President elect should quickly start to dampen expectations. When the working class man has voted for 'Change' and then loses his job or has his house repossessed he is going to be highly disillusioned.

Obama has some tough times facing him and ought to start thinking about his second term now. In 2012 things still won't be great and he will need to stand on the Gordon Brown ticket - the guy with the experience to get us through this - the difference being that Obama didn't actually cause the problems in the first place.

In any case, I really don't think there are going to be many changes. It isn't the West Wing, it's real life.

04 November, 2008

US Elections: democracy at work

This is not just about the Presidency for Americans: Jessica May at the Adam Smith Institute, an absentee voter, posts up her ballot paper

Single Partisan Ticket (which does not include non-partisan elections or proposals): Republican, Democratic, Green, US Taxpayers, Libertarian, or for the Natural Law Party
Presidential: One choice of pair of President & VP candidates from above 6 parties
Congressional: A choice from 6 parties for senator, AND 4 for house representative
State of Michigan: A choice from 2 house representatives in 2 parties (Rep & Dem)
State Board of Education: Select 2 choices from 9 candidates (5 parties)
Regent of the University of Michigan: Select 2 choices from 9 candidates (5 parties)
Trustee of Michigan State University: Select 2 choices from 9 candidates (5 parties)
Governor of Wayne State University: Select 2 choices from 9 candidates (5 parties)
County Prosecuting Attorney: Select 1 choice from 1 candidate (Rep)
County Sheriff: Select 1 choice from 2 candidates (Rep & Dem)
County Clerk: Select 1 choice from 1 candidate (Rep)
County Treasurer: Select 1 choice from 1 candidate (Rep)
County Drain Commissioner: Select 1 choice from 2 candidates (Rep & Dem)
County Surveyor: Write in 1 candidate
County Commissioner: Select 1 choice from 1 candidate (Rep)
Township Supervisor: Select 1 choice from 2 candidates (Rep & Dem)
Township Clerk: Select 1 choice from 1 candidate (Rep)
Township Treasurer: Select 1 choice from 2 candidates (Rep & Dem)
Township Trustee: Select 2 choices from 2 candidates (Rep)
State Supreme Court Justice: Select 1 from 3 ‘non-partisan’ candidates
Judge of Court Appeals (Incumbent): Select 2 from 2 candidates (non-partisan)
Judge of Court Appeals (Non-incumbent): Select 1 from 2 candidates
Judge of Circuit Court: Select 1 from 1 candidate
Judge of District Court: Select 1 from 1 candidate
Judge of Probate Court: Select 1 from 1 candidate
County Community College Board of Trustees: Select 2 from 4 candidates
County Community College Board of Trustees (Partial term): Select 1 from 1
And finally, two state proposals to vote YES or NO on:
Proposal 08-01: A legislative initiative to permit the use and cultivation of marijuana for specified medical conditions
Proposal 08-02: A proposal to amend the state constitution to address human embryo and human embryonic stem cell research in Michigan

OK, it's a little intimidating, but just think about these equivalent jobs in the UK which are handed out without a by-your-leave from the electorate. I just love the idea of choosing between two County Drain Commissioners.

03 November, 2008

US Elections: seen from here

A number of papers have bemoaned the fact that the result of the US elections will affect us greatly but we have no vote. I think perhaps we see it a little differently from a distance and it is perhaps a shame that the American voter won't care a stuff what we think.

Right from the start I have seen Obama as the candidate for the heart not the head. I did not think he would beat McCain, but mind you at the end of last year I thought the race would be between Giuliani and Hillary.

It seems to me that McCain, who was a well respected voice in the Senate, fought an awful campaign. I think both candidates expected the campaign to be about security, but security was the only card in McCain's hand. He seems to have been completely wrongfooted. And whatever his credentials he is unsuited to this sort of electioneering: he is short, jowly and with a squeaky voice. Obama looks a whole lot better on stage.

What worries me, though, is their respective economic policies. If there is one difference between them it is that Obama is protectionist and McCain is a free trader. And it has to be said that the last thing the world needs now is a protectionist president.

It seems, however, that we are going to get one. God bless America, and God help us all.

02 November, 2008

Cricket: Anil Kumble

Anil Kumble, the leg spinner and Indian captain has announced his retirement from Test Cricket. Kumble took 619 Test wickets and has a Test century to his name.

In my younger days no one would have believed that the three highest wicket takers could be slow bowlers, but Kumble ends his career behind Muralitharan (756 wickets) who is still playing and Shane Warne (708).

Kumble was renowned for the decent spirit with which he played the game.

Italy: Alitalia just airborne

The headline in yesterday's Corriere della Sera read 'The new Alitalia takes off without the pilots and the flight assistants'.

These two groups, which are still making wildly unreasonable demands, have not signed the deal.

The decision of the consortium to go ahead is being depicted as brave, but who in their right mind would fly Alitalia now?

01 November, 2008

EU: in orbit

Bruno Waterfield's Telegraph blog reveals that the EU plans to put a ballot box into space, as part of a £21 million PR jolly for the European Parliament.

I don't know if the technology exists but I would favour putting the entire European Parliament into orbit, perhaps on Nov 5th.

Italy: Friday's Child

A couple from Genova have been told they cannot call their son Venerdì (Friday) because it is not suitable. Despite it being pointed out that the footballer Francesco Totti and his TV presenter wife have called their daughter Chanel, and that Lapo Elkann, the heir to FIAT and his aristocratic wife Lavinia Borromeo have called their son Oceano, the Court of Cassation rejected the couple’s appeal.

Let’s see if we can guess what the difference is between our Genovese couple and Totti and Elkann? Yes indeed.

But the judges had gone to the effort of studying Robinson Crusoe and delivered in their obiter dicta the opinion that Friday was ''a figure characterised by subservience and inferiority, who would never reach the condition of a civilised man'' and ordered them to call their son Gregorio (he was born on St Gregory’s day).

So welcome, Gregorio, to the world of state interference into people’s private lives. I hope you grow up to fight against it.

31 October, 2008

Italy: Alitalia, the end?

It is quite incredible that after all this time with Alitalia on the brink (it seems to me it was bust in July, if not earlier), we are now told that today is the last day. If everything isn't agreed by tonight, Alitalia will cease to be.

I am reminded of some ham actor going through a death scene and milking it for 5 minutes on stage.

Wouldn't it be easier just to let the thing drop and have people who knew how to run airlines do the flying in and out of Italy?

I bet some agreement is reached, though, rendering the company's long term viability even less likely.

EU: The waste of Strasbourg

It costs us 200 million euros a year to transfer the European Parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg and back to Brussels. There is a campaign to stop this but the Parliament will not permit a debate and is blocking publicity to MEPs on the grounds that it is 'controversial'.

You can now vote in a petition against this monstrous waste of public money at www.oneseat.eu

One and a quarter million people have already signed.

UK: Team UK at last?

It is reported that Kate Hoey, the former Sports Minister, has declared that the term 'Team GB' excludes a substantial part of the UK and should be changed to Team UK.

I have posted a couple of times on this and am pleased to have some support. Given that Ms Hoey is from Belfast it is surprising she hasn't latched on to it earlier.

But we are here to help.

30 October, 2008

EU: now a bank?

With all this money slooshing round the world, and an IMF bailout of Hungary, it would be easy to miss the news that the EU has lent the country €6.5bn. This has been done under a little known clause in the governing treaty.

I am disturbed about this. Note that it was not the European Central Bank which made the loan. It, under its charter, is not allowed to do so. So the bank declined but the bureaucrats decided to go in: which department? What sort of analysis was done and by whom? They say they will issue bonds to cover this but who is on the hook for it (guess)? Did the various governments in the council of ministers approve it? What conditions, political and economic, apply?

We should find out what we can. This may be a disturbing new development (you can bet your boots that quite a few of the others will be after the moolah when they get to hear about it). It means the EC has got its fingers round another throat, at our expense.

Italy: The Ape

The Ape (pron. ah-pay, and meaning 'bee') is 60 years old.

If the Vespa got Italians moving after the war, the Ape got agriculture moving. Essentially the front part of a vespa (which means wasp, incidentally) with the engine over a single front wheel and handlebar steering, it could carry a heavy load of wood or produce for the market.

They are still going today, as everyone who has done a car tour of Italy will testify, whining like an angry bee (hence the name) they are incapable of more than 30 mph and can hold up traffic for miles behind.

The Ape does not require a car licence so those who have lost their licence, eg through failing the eyesight test, drive an Ape. Bless'em.

29 October, 2008

Brand and Ross

Some people, including the normally intelligent Ian Dale, are saying that since the programme was recorded the blame should go to the editor or senior official who approved it for release.

Certainly. But that does not excuse Brand and Ross. Irrespective of whether the programme was released for broadcast, they had left offensive and obscene messages on the answerphone of an innocent 78 year old, using BBC time and BBC equipment. No, they have to go, both of them.

Incidentally, it is said that Jonathan Ross' contract is for £18m, which seems fairly, um, chunky, at a time when the media are braying at bankers who earn considerably less. Does anyone know how this figure was arrived at? Was another station offering him seventeen and a half and the BBC thought 'oooh! we've got to have him'?

Out, both of them. The editor too. Otherwise we'll get the impression that the people running the BBC condone this sort of thing, and I'm afraid that would be the end of the licence fee and the BBC with it, which would be a tragedy.

28 October, 2008

BBC: complaints please

If, like me, you are disgusted that two highly paid BBC presenters make offensive 'phone calls on air to a septuagenarian, complain. Their website www.bbc.co.uk contains at the bottom a 'make a complaint' button. Ignore the fact that they try to excuse themselves in advance, and write out your views. I believe Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross should be sacked. If it were commercial radio it would be a different matter (although making offensive 'phone calls is of course an offence) but this is the BBC, using your licence fee. If we don't complain it will get worse.

Crisis: The Blame Game

We’re in for a bad time next year, although in my view we shall be seeing the bottom at the end of 2009. Unsurprisingly the world echoes with demands for the head of whoever caused it all. Here is your cut out and keep guide to the blame game.

First some private individuals.

Hyman Minsky. For not making himself understood. Minsky, who died in 1996, researched the behaviour of markets in a boom; he identified a ‘speculative euphoria’ in the late part of the cycle, where people borrow to invest, not believing it can go wrong. The weight of debt and low asset quality eventually cause a downturn. This is called a Minsky Moment.

Alan Greenspan. One of the media’s favourites for the stocks. He was head of the Federal Reserve for nearly 20 years and was responsible for the low interest rates America enjoyed in the Bush-Clinton-Bush years. He thought that globalisation and the internet had pushed up America’s growth and there was no need to raise interest rates to hold the economy back (although he did warn of ‘irrational exuberance’). There was little inflation in the sense of stuff you have to buy going up in price, the question remaining being ‘is a house stuff you have to buy?’

Bill Clinton. The Community Reinvestment Act., passed in 1977 to encourage lenders to lend to poorer people, was revamped by Clinton’s liberals allotting targets for different institutions, compelling them to lend to people who couldn’t afford to pay back. The targets set were over 40% of new loans to be to sub-prime borrowers. That is to say something like a half of new loans had to be to people who probably shouldn't have had them. If this is what regulators can do, perhaps it’s a crisis of over-regulation?

Gordon Brown. One of the first things Brown did on becoming Chancellor (apart from making the Bank of England ‘independent’ of which more later) was to reorganise the banking regulation system. This had been carried out by the Bank of England (the famous raising of the Governor’s eyebrow being enough to put banks back on the straight and narrow). Brown set up a tripartite system with the Bank of England, the Treasury and the Financial Services Authority, which meant that when the Northern Rock debacle happened nobody knew who was in charge.

In his frantic efforts to transform the UK into a welfare society Brown borrowed heavily in the good times and now, when room to borrow is desperately needed, he risks a run on the currency, with interest rates higher than they need be, deepening the recession.

The Monetary Policy Committee of course only have control over monetary policy - interest rates. Brown has control over fiscal policy (government spending) and the more it goes up the higher interest rates need to be. An ‘independent’ Bank of England would have told him to stop spending so much.

Milton Friedman. The arch-monetarist is being blamed and people are freely mentioning the term Keynesianism as our future. Had he lived he would have given as good as he got. He exposed Keynes for the fraud the old boy was and would have criticised Greenspan and the over regulation of the markets.

Other blame candidates:

Bankers’ pay. The first thing to remember is that it is entirely the business of the shareholders (ie owners) of the banks how their employees are remunerated. Some have said that the banks were paying more and more to employees to shovel more rubbish into their portfolio, but these guys (very well paid indeed, some of them) were doing what the management ordered. They were told to shovel more rubbish into the portfolio. Certainly some more long-term approach to remunerating senior management might have been wiser, but in the banks’ defence it is a bonus- based system and when times are bad, as they are now, employees can lose two thirds of their expected earnings. It looks bad in retrospect but these people are not the cause of the recession.

Regulators. People are saying that the regulators were unable to understand some of the instruments they were dealing with. Some say they had too light a touch. But I find myself unsatisfied with this approach. For many years – certainly back to the 70s, banks had leveraged themselves twenty times. That is to say they had bought assets worth 20 times their capital, or to put it more realistically, 95% of their assets were funded by debt so only 5% could go wrong without the bank becoming insolvent. Some banks in the last few years leveraged up to 30 times but that is not completely unreal. And if the regulators had asked they would have pointed to the quality of the assets, which was thought to be high.

Ratings Agencies. The main ones are Standard & Poors, Moody’s and Fitch. Until the latter part of the last century most analysis by banks was done in-house. The ratings agencies were mainly for the private investor: typically AAA was the best rating, to solvent governments and first class banks, whilst BB+ was the lowest that could be regarded a investment grade. Naturally the lower the rating the more interest was charged. As turnover in financial instruments increased and more borrowers gained access to the capital markets increasingly the banks outsourced their own analysis to the ratings agencies. It is important to remember that until the liquidity crisis became front-page news, most of these special investment vehicles, companies set up with a mix of assets in order to achieve a specific rating, were AAA.

The ratings agencies now admit to mistakes in their modelling, and most crucially it must be remembered that they were paid not by the investor but by the banks who had created the investment vehicle. Lest all the business went to the other two, a ratings agency was more or less obliged to lower its standards.

So, take your pick. For me I blame Greenspan for overly lax monetary policy, Brown for screwing up the regulatory system and for making things worse for Britain than they might have been through rash overborrowing. I rather absolve the regulators, except for the ridiculous Community Reinvestment Act. I don’t believe we could have expected the regulators to make an accurate critique of the ratings agencies’ analysis models.

But I do blame the ratings agencies, who have made a huge mess. The question is: will anyone trust them again? And the answer is: yes. We will get out of this crisis and some day we will find ourselves in another, just as bad. I am with Minsky: these crises are simply part of the system.

26 October, 2008

Daylight Saving Lies

Once again millions of people are put to the inconvenience of having to change their clocks.

It must be one of the most egregious examples of the nanny state that not only do they want to tell you how to think and how to behave, they also want to tell you what bloody time it is.

It is not beyond the meanest intelligence to work out that if you don't want your children walking home in the dark (as if any did walk home any more) you should organise with the school that they start earlier and finish earlier. Instead we are given lies about how many lives are saved by the State knowing best.

Despite it being called the Daylight Saving Measure there is exactly the same amount of daylight as there would have been without it.

The Libertarian Society promise to abolish this nonsense which is a good reason to vote for them.

EU: more Mandelson

In case you haven't seen it, the News of the World has a story to the effect that Mandy is being investigated for overly close links to a lobbying firm, BusinessEurope, the accusation being that they 'helped' him write laws.

As said before, he's nothing but trouble.

Italy: the PD

I don't often attend demonstrations but by chance found myself at the Partito Democratico rally in Rome yesterday. The organisers said 2.5 million people were there, which is wide of the mark and must have included those watching on television at home. The police said 200,000. It was about the size of the countryside march in London several years ago, perhaps a bit smaller.

It was, as Italian demonstrations usually are, colourful, noisy and good humoured. There were certainly all types of people. The youngest walking (there were several children carried) can't have been more than 8, the oldest can't have been less than 80. There were punks, students, the odd priest, academics, everything. And this in a sense is the PD's problem.

Formed of the old communists, democrats of the left and a rag bag of tiny parties, it was supposed to be a broad platform for the left-inclined voter. Instead it had been riven with discord, and recently suffered the departure of the Italy of Values Party led by the former anti-mafia judge Antonio do Pietro.

In the meantime Berlusconi, whom many thought to be an open goal, is way ahead in the opinion polls, having kept to his two seemingly unkeepable promises to clean up Naples within a matter of weeks, and provide an Italian solution to Alitalia. Both are open to criticism, as is much else, but it doesn't seem that way to the people.

The left needs to re-form, under a more charismatic leader than Veltroni, and it needs to learn discipline. At the moment the Italians want fewer dreamers and more people who can get things done.

EU: The Mandelson problem

The EU have a US Senate-style system of controlling who becomes a commissioner. I remember the parliament refusing some nice old Italian cove who admitted that he went to Church and supported the Church's teachings (not sufficiently pro-abortion, you see). They had ample chance to refuse Mr Mandelson, and anyone from Britain could have told them that they would be saving themselves a whole heap of trouble.

Why didn't they? Because Mandelson, like them, is a senior member of the political class. You don't refuse one of your own, no no. But they should have done.

Now that the UK press' spotlight had finally turned towards the real possible scandal, and away from Mr Osborne, the mess is becoming clearer. Mandelson, who led the public to believe that he hadn't met Mr Deripaska until recently and then not often, now admits that he had dinner with him in Moscow in 2004, after the announcement of his appointment as Trade Commissioner but before he even took up his duties. It would have been one of the first things he did.

Unsurprisingly several journalists have applied to be given details of his meetings, the request being made under the Transparency Rule, 1049. Here is the Commission's response:

"The concept of document to which regulation 1049 applies must be distinguished from that of information. The public's right of access covers only documents and not information in the wider meaning. Only information contained in existing documents has to be treated under the regulation."

Straight out of George Orwell, that first sentence. And note 'The public's right of access...' as if the public were something separate and alien to the real world of Euro-bureaucracy. Which, I suppose, it is.

I don't hold out much hope for reform, but if this sorry episode serves to inform the public just what a mad, undemocratic world we have permitted our politicians to create, it would be something.

23 October, 2008

EU: Austrian secrecy

They used to say that the genius of Austria was in persuading the world that Mozart was Austrian* and Hitler wasn't.

Now I think it's a talent for keeping things covered up. If someone had told me the ghastly story of Mr Fritzl and asked me to guess which country it had taken place in, I should immediately have said Austria. It is a country whose former president, Kurt Waldheim, managed to conceal his wartime membership of the SS.

Now we learn that the extreme right politician Joerg Haider, who campaigned for family values, had a homosexual lover.

*Salzburg didn't become part of Austria until the early 19th century

EU: King Sarko?

Talking of Sarkozy, the Belgian paper De Standaard reports that a plot is brewing between him and the Commission President, the former Maoist Jose Barroso, to make Sarkozy the permanent president.

The reason is that on 31st December Sarko has to hand over the presidency to the Czechs, who are pleasingly eurosceptic. There will be a lot of talk about special measures for these difficult times, and bribery of the Czechs, all of which I hope will be rejected out of hand.

EU: Climate Change Row

There’s a bit of a row breaking out in Europe over the climate change proposals. The ’20-20-20’ Proposals require by 2020 a reduction in greenhouse gases by 20% below 1990 levels through a 20% increase in the use of renewable energy and a 20% boost in energy efficiency.

Nine or ten countries, led by Italy, say that given the recession they can’t afford it. Sarkozy, who wants his name over as many world saving initiatives as possible during his six month presidency, says he will push it through by majority voting.

As with anything else in Europe and to do with the environment, the cost is unclear. The EU says €9.5 billion whilst Stefania Prestigiacomo, Italy’s Environment Minister, says it could be as high as €20 billion, and the costs to individual countries should be spread more fairly. France for example generates most of its electricity by nuclear with no greenhouse gas emissions whilst other countries use coal or gas.

Expect some sort of compromise which won’t please anybody except the awful Sarkozy.

22 October, 2008

UK: The Russian Yacht

Several stories emerge from the party in Corfu aboard the yacht of Mr Deripaska. An interesting, if minor one, is why we immediately assume that Russian billionaires are crooked. If the protagonists had been meeting with a Norwegian (but not Icelandic) billionaire I suspect the perception would have been a good deal less spicy.

A story which will emerge is of the talent of Peter Mandelson, worth his weight in billionaires to his party for his genius, I think there is no better word, at spin.

The main story was (it isn't now) that Mandelson had a close connection with Mr Deripaska and that in his job as EU Commissioner for trade, negotiating aluminium tariffs (Mr Deripaska is one of the world's largest aluminium producers) for example, it showed 'lack of judgment'.

Mandelson, upset that a private conversation he had with Osborne (to the effect that Gordon Brown was a disaster) should have been repeated, and needing to turn the spotlight away from himself, got a joint friend, Nat Rothschild, to spill the beans on Osborne talking about Deripaska donating money to the Tory Party: the suggestion being that it showed, yes, 'lack of judgment'.

What interests me is the relative weight given by the media to these two stories. It is of course grubby to see senior British figures gathering with the super wealthy like flies round a honeypot, but I should have thought the Mandelson story, alleging as it does that he may have been tinkering with international trade tariffs as a result of a friendship, was far worse. But the media have pursued the George Osborne story to the full, Nick Robinson of the BBC admitting that they were not really covering the Mandelson part. Osborne 'fighting for his political life' says the Telegraph, of all papers.

I think this is partly to do with the BBC, traditionally, and the Telegraph, lately, being anti-Tory. But in part it reverts to the genius of Mandelson: they are scared of him.

What is perhaps most terrifying is that all this happened at all. Why were two political opponents, Osborne and Mandelson, having a cosy little chat in Corfu anyway? It seems almost as if they were conspiring. Like in the Rheinmann Exchange, Robert Ludlum's story of the Germans and Americans doing a deal to prolong WWII, it smacks of the political class cosseting itself rather than working for its supporters or its ideals. And for my taste it doesn't smell too good.

18 October, 2008

EU: getting the money back?

With all these billions flowing about for the bank rescue, saving the £14billion we give to the EU each year must be seeming more and more attractive, hmmm?

17 October, 2008

Cricket: the little master

Congratulations to Sachin Tendulkar, who has surpassed Brian Lara's record for the most runs scored in Test matches, at just under 12,000.

Only 5ft 5in tall. he is known as the Little Master.

15 October, 2008

Crisis: do we want nationalisation?

Tim Congdon has a good piece in the Times, to the effect that the Bank of England's job is lender of last resort and it as no business taking equity stakes in banks.

The trouble is, the people, and the bureaucrats, rather like nationalisation. They like the idea of the government banning the bonuses of the traders, of sacking the management, of making the banks serve the people. Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of the Unite Union, said after the rescue plan was announed: "The measures announced today must be bound to undertakings by the banks of no job losses, no repossessions and an end to the bonus culture." So the government will be actively managing the banks, with social rather than profit goals?

And the people liked the line that was spun that the government would make a profit out of owning the banks' shares. Don't hold your breath, if Mr Simpson has anything to do with it.

As a libertarian I am against the government nationalising banks in this way. Its role is to keep the markets open by supplying enough liquidity. As to making a profit, just suppose they did what conservatives and libertarians want and gave the money to the people: how many of us would have invested in bank shares? Damn few, as the Scots say. And that is because we don't think they are a very good investment. So lets have no more pretence on that score.

Incidentally Darling's first idea was that the government would take special preference shares. No mention of how they were to be sold for the prospective profit (if the government were the only owner of preference shares there would be no market to sell them into, they would have to wait for them to be redeemed by the bank, at par and without profit). Then it transpired that the banks' statutes prevented such a thing anyway.

This aspect of the rescue will be a fiasco, I am thinking. Cameron should promise to get the government out of the banking sector as soon as may be possible.

Italy: cheese welfare programme

Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia has announced that the government will buy 100,000 parmesan cheeses and the same number of grana padano (a slightly inferior product from down the road) to give to poor people.

State intervention to help the industry would of course be illegal, but this is welfare.

Great to see the financial crisis being taken seriously

14 October, 2008

Italy: Berlusconi's slapstick genius

If you haven't seen the BBC's brilliant clip of Berlusconi in action in America, this should work:


UK: Brown planning departure?

So, the way it would work would be like this: Brown realises that he can't win the next general election (he knows what's in store for the country in 2009 and it isn't good). But he doesn't want to be one of the shortest lived PMs on record, without ever having the voters' mandate, so he concocts the idea of being ill.

Now that Hank Paulson has adjusted his intervention scheme to include taking equity stakes in banks, what Brown calls the Brown Plan (and Europeans call the Sarkozy Plan and economists call the Swedish Plan) has been adopted universally. The banks stabilise, interbank lending rates go down towards Bank Rate and Brown claims he has saved the world. He regretfully retires due to failing eyesight and leaves the stage to write his memoirs (everyone to blame except Gordon).

Mandelson oversees the coronation of the new Blairite champion. The Tories say Brown may have helped fix the banks but the real economy is up the spout and only they can save it. The election is closer than it might have been with Brown there, but the Tories win with a 30 seat majority.

If all this turns out to be nonsense I shall deny it was a forecast. If it proves correct, however....

13 October, 2008

UK: Brown can't see?

An extraordinary article in the Telegraph today, to the effect that Gordon Brown's eyesight is failing him. What is extraordinary is that the information seems to come from Team Brown: Damian McBride, Brown's chief spin doctor until the reshuffle reports 'His sight isn't very good.'; another official said: "If I want him to reply to an email, I always make sure it's in at least 36 point." That is five times as large as standard print size.

Normally one would expect such revelations to be the prelude to a resignation, but all the signs are that the financial crisis is doing Brown's poll ratings a lot of good and people say he is enjoying himself for the first time since becoming PM. A PM's resignation, even if it is Brown, would not go down well with the markets at this time.

We shall see.

12 October, 2008

Crisis: Suspend the markets?

It is reported that the White House has rejected suggestions by Silvio Berlusconi that the markets should be suspended for a day or two around a holiday in order to let them breathe.

Berlusconi is not a fool and this is a suggestion which has some merit. It has occasionally been the case that action by central banks has jarred the market into imagining things are even worse than they thought and so has a negative impact. At a time when the authorities are taking action I would certainly advocate closing the markets say Friday and Monday. It would not deprive traders of some God-given right to deal: there has been plenty of news about the crisis and plenty of occasions to sell. These are difficult times and a calming measure would be the right thing.