28 July, 2009

The BBC: the future?

The excellent Frank Field MP (I am so glad he didn't become Speaker of the Commons, we would have lost the benefit of his extra parliamentary work) has come up with a paper on the future of public service broadcasting. It goes under the title 'Auntie's Dying: long live public sector broadcasting'. You can link to it here.

Field's thesis is that 'Because public service broadcasting is paid for by a poll tax licence fee the BBC feels compelled to spend most of this money in delivering entertainment which by no stretch of the imagination could be thought of as public service broadcasting.'

'Public service broadcasting is too important to be left largely in monopoly hands. Now is the time to free the glory of this idea from BBC shackles.'

His idea is the BBC should be reduced to BBC 2 and 4 and Radio 3 and 4 and the World Service, and that there should be created a new body, The Public Service Broadcasting Corporation which would allow companies - anyone - to bid for finance to make their own programmes, which would go out on any of a variety of formats. The rump of the BBC would exist largely off PSB money (although the World Service gets some from the Foreign Office) but others could be involved in the scheme. An example he gives is that he is a trustee of the 2011 Trust which celebrates the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible and he would be able to bid for licence fee money to make TV or radio programmes.

I think this an excellent idea, although with so many people now not listening to public service braodcasting I would prefer to turn the licence fee into a trust so people don't have to shell out every month for something they don't want.

But this should be the start of a national debate.

27 July, 2009

Italy: it's the economy, stupido

The thing to remember about Silvio Berlusconi is that no one ever says he lacks intelligence or that he is out of touch with the people of his country. He is probably the best politician Europe has seen for 50 years (although certainly not the best leader). You have to think about this when looking at what has made the news in Italy this year: his social life, his divorce, his parties; his success with the Naples rubbish, with Alitalia, with l'Aquila. Now talk has started again of the Messina bridge. And all this has diverted attention from the real problems facing the Italian people.

The graph shows the long term moving average growth of the economy, that is to say the average of the previous 10 years. So in 1980 the average for the previous 10 years (ie the 1970s) was nearly 4%. In the 1950s and 1960s it had been over 5%. By the end of next year however it will have been zero, meaning that the economy will not have gone forward since the turn of the century. Retail sales have been falling steadily for over 2 years. In the first three months of this year the economy contracted at an annualised rate of nearly 10%.

Many of the problems will be familiar to anyone following the UK economy, only worse: the state is too large and the debt burden enormous. The regional disparity between the wealthy north and the impoverished, corrupt south far greater than the difference between, say, Glasgow and London. The native population is falling, and whilst this is offset somewhat by immigration, immigrants can go elsewhere when there is no work. The country cannot afford its pension system as too few productive people support a long lived population, with an unaffordable requirement for healthcare. The scale of organised crime is so great that it is best not to think about it.

When the banks started to crash in America and Britain the government announced that Italy was largely exempt from these problems. The Italian banking system, barely emerged from the 1950s, had not got around to considering these new CDOs and SIVs. Italian banks are among the best capitalised in Europe, but this is at least in part due to them not using their capital efficiently. Firms find it difficult to borrow from these sleepy monoliths who in any case charge vast fees for the simplest of transactions. The system has been allowed to continue only by a policy of refusing entry to foreign banks.

The industrial system, a post war marvel, consists in large part of small family businesses, often with loose associations and geographical specialisation. It is little suited to the modern world. As The Far East and India expanded on the back of lower labour rates, western nations have had to climb the quaity chain, creating new technologies their emergent competitors could not rival. The very structure of Italian industry precludes this: the family companies shoud have merged years ago, economies of scale financing research and development. But they didn't. There is no stockmarket to speak of, only a few of the largest firms being floated, and there is no venture capital / start up market. The procedure for setting up a company is one of the most time consuming in the western world, and the appalling over regulation keeps entrepreneurs away and consumer prices high.

All this will have been going through Berlusconi's mind, which is why he isn't too troubled by the news being obsessed with a couple of starlets and a hooker or two. He knows, too, that the political will does not exist in the country to effect the required change and that the people have, by and large, accepted the fact that theirs is a nation in decline. He probably also knows that whilst they can accept the slow debasement of their reputation, when it filters through to living standards it will be a different matter. That will probably be a problem for his successor.

26 July, 2009

Berlusconi: I've seen the light

The Times reports that Berlusconi is going to sell his Sardinian home Villa Certosa, and at the end of the summer make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Padre Pio.

This story gets better and better, and conveniently means no one is talking about the Italian economy, on which I shall post later.

24 July, 2009

Defending our borders

I think most of us feel there are too many laws being passed with too little thought going into them and here is a prime example. The Government seems to have given up on its plan to impose immigration controls on travel between the mainland and Northern Ireland and the Chamnnel Islands.

I am grateful to the following summary from the excellent Samizdata blog:

'You can basically sum up the UK Government's dilemma as either they are going to have to tell Gerry Adams he has to have a British ID card to live in Northern Ireland or tell Ian Paisley he's going to need a passport to travel from Belfast to London.'

Or, if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Lord Kingsland 1942 - 2009

G.K.Chesterton remarked that journalism was saying 'Lord Jones is dead' to people who didn't know he was alive, and I suppose many people would have passed over the news of the death of Lord Kingsland without curiosity.

A man of many talents, he will be remembered, unfortunately, for one thing: before he was ennobled he was Christopher Prout, the leader of the Conservative MEPs.

He was known as Brussels Prout.

The Berlu tapes: new shocker

I have not heard the tapes published by l'Espresso (do hookers usually carry recording equipment or did she just happen to have it about her person?) and I have no real enthusiasm for doing so, but an important and unexpected fact seems to have emerged.

Whatever you thought might happen next - the hooker paid by a newspaper (check - not hard to guess), Berlu boasting of his manhood (check - he's Italian), the bed donated by a Russian politician (check - is this where the recording equipment was hidden?) - you did not expect this:

Berlusconi seems to have revealed, as a chat up line few of us could equal, that some thirty Phoenician tombs from the 3rd century BC were discovered on his Sardinian lovenest. The Opposition, outraged, are demanding to know why he didn't inform the Ministry of Culture, as is required by law.

Life, as an American oilman once observed, is one damn thing after another.

22 July, 2009

The NHS: our moral guardians

‘A face that should haunt a generation’ wrote Liz Hunt in the Daily Telegraph, referring to the unhappy tale of Gary Reinbach, a 22 year old man who has died of cirrhosis of the liver. His doctors recommended a liver transplant but the rules did not permit it; to qualify for a liver transplant you have to show you can lead an alcohol-free life and Mr. Reinbach was too ill to leave hospital and show it. So he died.

There seems to me to be a number of ways in which this is picture should ‘haunt a generation’. One is Mr. Reinbach’s mother Madeline (sic) Hanshaw who did nothing to stop her son drinking heavily at age 13, before he had reached the age of legal responsibility, much less that when you can drink legally. Her conduct as a parent, whilst not unique, would seem to be sufficiently reprehensible as to excite comment, but the papers report her blaming her divorce, and now starting a campaign to make sure, yes, you guessed it, that Gary didn't die in vain.

Another thing which makes this story unforgettable is the attitude of the NHS. Mr Reinbach was sick, and if the NHS is to mean anything at all he should be entitled to rely on it to treat him without making moral judgment on his behaviour at age 13. Let us return to the Telegraph’s Ms Hunt: ‘A liver wasted – and I use that word deliberately – on a chronic alcoholic, whatever his or her age, is a chance of life denied to a more deserving recipient.‘ She compares the story with that of a young girl who asked not to be treated (for a heart transplant) and then changed her mind ‘Her illness, unlike Gary's, was not self-inflicted.’

It must be nice to feel so sure of yourself that you can sit in judgment of others as Ms Hunt does, and as do the bureaucrats who draw up the regulations. You have to be worthy of treatment, and even though money is deducted from your pay packet to pay for that treatment, they reserve the right to deny it to you on moral grounds.

I have two questions:

1. How did George Best get a liver transplant? Surely nobody thought he would, or could, go on the wagon for the rest of his life?
2. Will we now be refusing AIDS treatment to promiscuous homosexuals on the grounds that their illness was self-inflicted?

The answer to the first question is that Mr. Best was famous, whereas Mr. Reinbach was a statistic. The answer to the second question of course is no, and nor should we.

20 July, 2009

Cricket: The Ashes Second Test

I have listened to almost every minute of the commentary for four days and I confess I still can't work out how England got into the position of declaring at 521 runs ahead with two days to go, or how Australia clawed back 313 of those for the loss of five wickets.

So England need to take five wickets today for less than 209 to beat Australia at Lords for the first time in three quarters of a century, and Australia need to hold on to stage easily the biggest rescue in Test history.

Either side could win; it could be a draw; it could be a tie. I don't bite my nails but if I did, I would.

19 July, 2009

UK: Of Statues and Statutes

We British seem reluctant to honour our great men and women, as the absurd farce surrounding the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square tells us. Presumably with the approval of the mayor, Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson, it was thought appropriate to give a succession of people a brief time alone on the plinth to celebrate some crass pseudo concept like people-awareness, something which could be gained in concentrated form travelling on an underground train in the rush hour. There are many appropriate candidates for the empty plinth, my own favoured one being Edward Jenner, who invented vaccination and of whom there is a statue in London which, oddly, was once in Trafalgar Square. This is a man who has saved literally millions of lives and deserves our adulation. He won’t get it.

Here in Italy almost every street is named after someone, and not just Italian heroes Garibaldi, Mazzini, King Umberto and Queen Margherita (famous for her pizzas). Near me there is a via Marx, via Lenin and via Gagarin (it has been of old a communist area) but a also via Molière, via M.L.King and via M.Buonaroti.

In Italy, in America and in France they name laws after the parliamentarian who first promulgated them. In France a man called Toubon put forward a law making it illegal to use English words. It is known as ‘la loi Allgood’.

So it should be in England. The new law making it possible to resign a peerage (and therefore for a pensioned off minister to return to front line politics and even party leadership) should be called the Mandelson Law.

18 July, 2009

Europe: last gasp of the nation state?

The Bundesverfassungsgericht, Germany’s constitutional court, has ruled that before Germany can ratify the Lisbon Treaty new legislation must be enacted, strengthening the national parliament's involvement in any major decision-making. It would be nice if some MP asked if the British Parliament is going to insist on the same rights.

But there is more to this than a bit of Lisbon-bashing (on which I am as keen as anyone else). The major European treaties are gradually ushering in what some political scientists are referring to as the post democratic age, and this utterance of the BVG may just be the last gasp of the nation state. Plans are being made to promulgate a new politics for the supranational state.

Federalists in Germany, led by the loathsome Joska Fischer, have thrown their arms up in horror at the idea that the directly elected representatives of the people should seek to control what is taking place on their behalf in Brussels. The new philosophy in Europe is called ‘Output Democracy’ which means that the executive doesn’t need to be told of the wishes of the people, but that its legitimacy depends on its output. As Der Spiegel puts it ‘In other words, the Brussels bureaucracy no longer needs to ask itself: What is the interest of citizens? Instead, it can ask itself: What is in the interest of citizens?’

The problem with this system, which looms large for anyone with a taste for ‘old fashioned’ democracy, is how to you get rid of them when their output is no good? What exactly is the procedure for the people of Europe sacking a European Commissioner? (Don’t bother looking, there isn’t one).

When you factor into this the fact that the executive controls the propaganda – Brussels multi-million euro ‘information’ departments - you have a self-perpetuating political elite, a dictatorship of people who know what’s best for you.

And if you are horrified that this should be happening, well, I'm afraid we wished it on ourselves. As for me I congratulate the Germans on being able to look squarely at this while the rest of us have looked the other way, and hope we can learn from them.

Cars and greenhouse gases

While we're on the subject of my not being too hot at science, here is what, to me, is a conundrum. The world's least green car, the 8.3 litre Dodge Viper, is said to do between 13 and 22 miles per gallon and according to the US Environmental Protection Agency produces 11.4 tons of greenhouse gases when driven over the American average of 15,000 miles in a year.

Now, even at the worse end of the consumption figures, the car will have used 1,154 gallons of petrol which weigh 8,424 lb or 3.76 tons. The law of conservation of mass tells us that if 3.76 tons go in, no more than 3.76 tons can go out.

Aha! you say, but it has mixed with air (nearly 8 tons of it). But air is harmless. This is like saying that if you dilute your wine with the same amount of water you have drunk twice as much alcohol.
So what is going on here? Anyone know?

17 July, 2009

A new element

I never showed much promise at what in my day were called 'Science' lessons but it now seems that I may have shown an unlikely streak of genius, aged around 14. I asked the Master how they knew there were only 111 elements - I mean, they could stumble on another one, surely?

Don't start causing trouble, Hedges, came the reply; it has been scientifically proved that there can't be any more.

So I was delighted to see that No.112 has been added to the list, and will be called Copernicus, after the 16th century Polish astronomer. So now there can be Copernicate acid and Copernicus dioxide and the cartoon characterish Copernicus Chloride. And who knows what else is out there? Makes it all far more exciting.

The Daily Telegraph

I have despaired sometimes at the editorial line taken recently by the Daily Telegraph. For years it was known as the Torygraph, but now, just as the Tories seem certain to win the next election it prints seemingly unchecked and unchallenged submissions from the Labour Party spin machine and is known popularly as the Labourgraph.

Despite this I have been copying this blog into the Telegraph blog service for a couple of years, for the benefit of those people who follow newspaper blogs. Now however they have deleted the post below on the BNP and refused to tell me why. Accordingly I have stopped posting there.

If anyone can see anything wrong in the thread, let me know.

14 July, 2009

France: le jour de gloire est arrivé

Bastille Day, or the Fête Nationale, as it is properly called, and this blog’s best wishes to the French Nation.

When I reflect on France, as I sometimes do, I think that the thing which most impresses me is its PR. The country projects a level of self-belief which, although very occasionally shattered, gets it through with a coherent image shared by outsiders as well as natives. For example, the vast majority of economists think that French political-industrial policy is wrong (Sarkozy recently declared a yoghourt manufacturer as being one of the commanding heights of the economy and, in promising to stop foreigners buying it, made its shares less attractive). But I have yet to meet a French person who doesn’t think that this is more or less the right approach.

As well as producing some of the best wine in the world, France produces some of the worst, a fact that is conveniently forgotten, and despite the inhabitants clearly loathing foreigners France attracts more tourists than any other country.

I think it is in part having such a central constitutional figure as the President, perhaps the most powerful man in he developed world. Giving so much power to one person I also think wrong, but it gives France a guidance, a symbol, almost a brand. ‘L’état c’est moi’ said the great Louis XIV and Sarko probably whispers it into his pillow.

Somehow, it works. Grenouilles, les rosbifs vous saluent.

13 July, 2009

BNP: it matters what he said

There still seems to be a lot of fuss about BNP leader Nick Griffin’s having said that the boats carrying illegal immigrants from North Africa to Europe should be sunk.

I’m not sure we should be analysing in intricate detail each utterance of Griffin, but I think it worthwhile here just to consider whether he is talking about sinking the boats with the immigrants still in them or removing them to safety first. According to the Guardian he said ‘I didn't say anyone should be murdered at sea – I say boats should be sunk’

I should have thought there was a rather good case for sinking the boats of people traffickers, so they can’t do it again. This seems to be another case of the British press dressing up a political utterance to conform to its political stereotyping, and it is as unfortunate when done to Griffin as it would be to Brown or Cameron.

Cricket: the Ashes first test

At the end it was easy to forget that the pitch had been rubbish and the match uneven. It seemed we were chasing a great victory, not merely trying to get as many runs in two innings as the Australians had in one. But it was as compulsive a listening experience as I have ever had. Here in expat-land it can’t be got on a transistor radio and I suddenly found I was stranded with the gin, twenty-two yards from the tonic, and I had to scramble a Collingwood-like two to get back in time.

This was test cricket at its best, in terms of entertainment rather than cricket. It is a failing of cricket lovers to believe that all the great stuff was in the past, but truly there was no greatness on the pitch, except for Ponting, and occasionally Flintoff, who puts so much sinew-straining torque into each delivery you fear he cannot be far from the knackers’ yard. We desperately need a bowler with the easy rhythm of Courtney Walsh.

This, then, was a game not of exceptionals but of exceptions: well done Cardiff, except for the awful pitch; well done England, except it was only just a draw; well done Test Cricket, save for the sight of England sending on the 12th man and the physio unrequested in order to waste time: better to lose the match than to cheat.

Oh – and well done Test Match Special which will have gained another couple of years’ reprieve from the eager axers of the BBC.

08 July, 2009

USA: Palin at the prospect

A minor illness and a complete failure of Telecom Italia to repair a line struck by lightning on 26th June have prevented me from blogging recently. Things seem to be working now.....

One thing I missed was the resignation of Sarah Palin. She is a figure I find interesting, if only because she is still making news. The left dismiss her as barking mad, a stupid housewife, and this in itself is enough for sensible people to look for some qualities to associate with her, often without success. But there may, just may, be more.

The Republican Party in America seems for some time to have lost the plot. I remember Reagan saying that the most terrifying words you can hear are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’, but the size of the state increased during that administration, as it did under George Dubya. There is no one really carrying the torch for smaller government and lower taxes in America, even though opinion polls show people increasingly in favour of reducing the size of the state. And it is without doubt this battleground the Republicans must adopt if they are to return to power.

And yet, in a confused ramble, rich in basketball analogy (and therefore unintelligible to most people) we hear this: ‘I keep my eye on the on the ball that represents sound priorities.....energy independence and smaller government and national security and freedom”.

You could wish it were said better, and you could wish it were someone else saying it, but until that happens I believe Sarah Palin will be seen as the Republican front runner. It just might be better if later on in the game, to use her analogy, she passed the ball to someone more likely to get it in the basket.