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.