31 December, 2010

End of the year

The muscles are weak, the sangiovese is taking control of the veins and the fireworks have already started. I wish you well rid of 2010 and hope you wake up in the morning.

That's about all we can hope for
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Birthdays

Italy will be 150 next year and there will be a party or two. Italians like to celebrate.

I wonder how many people would answer correctly how old the United Kingdom is? In fact the Act of Settlement came into force on 1st January 1801, so the UK will be 210 tomorrow.

The reason we didn't have a party in 2001 was that Tony Blair had, with his devolution legislation, presided over the start of the break-up of the nation and he was embarrassed.

Farewell the kroon

Tomorrow Estonia joins the euro, the first former soviet state to do so. Its currency, the kroon, will disappear.

Estonia will be the poorest of the 17 states of the eurozone. It needs to grow dramatically to reach the levels of Greece and Slovakia, much less those of France and Germany.

Economic growth is best nurtured with an undervalued currency and low interest rates. When the European Central Bank starts to put the brakes on to prevent inflation in France and Germany the Estonians, already poor, will suffer. They are being encouraged to join because the euro is a political project and those behind it, none of whom are Estonian, want membership to look attractive.

I suppose it is the plight of countries such as Estonia to be caught up in the doings of greater nations, but this looks particularly unfortunate. God help them.

30 December, 2010

A sop to democracy

In what the Government says is a move to bring the legislature closer to the people, there are to be petitions on a special website. The petition with the greatest number of votes will be drafted into a bill and put before parliament, and any petition with a certain number of signatures (thought to be 1 million) will be guaranteed parliamentary time for a debate.

This can of course go wrong for both sides. For us the voters, the government just needs one of its stooges to petition ‘We the people are greatly supportive of motherhood and apple pie’ for the bill drafting embarrassment to be got out of the way. And we need only have 36 different petitions on Europe for the vote to be divided.

Where it can misfire for the government is that the legislature is indeed out of step with the electorate. Continually polls suggest that most people in Britain would like to leave the European Union and bring back capital punishment, but you wouldn’t even get a small minority in parliament supporting such measures.

Still, we must play along. If Open Europe, or some similar organisation draws up a petition on at least repatriating powers from Europe I shall support it. Without much hope though. I smell a little bit of a rat here.

England retain the Ashes

Congratulations to Andrew Strauss and the victoious English cricket team on retaining the Ashes in Australia, for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century. It is a remarkable achievement in that only four years ago they were whitewashed 5-0.

Real cricket fans only look to the quality of the play and don't mind who wins but it is better for the game if there is a real contest and not the same side winning every time. Australia have two years to rebuild their team before coming to England and England fans should be in no doubt but that they will do so.

The first thing they need is a captain to unite around. We shall see how Michael Clarke does in the final Test.

26 December, 2010

Italy’s education system

Dividing it into four parts, Italy’s primary education is excellent; secondary education is poor; tertiary (university) is utterly dreadful and post graduate pretty well non-existent.

So it is not surprising the Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini should have put so much effort into university reforms. Her efforts have been treated to a wave of quite disgraceful violence with police cars burnt, banks broken into, police officers and members of the public injured. Market traders have had to shut their stalls for fear that the ranting mob should overrun them. I looked at the nervous faces of the carabinieri, many drafted up from the country and not used to city streets, and thought of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s comment in 1968 that the police, sons of the people, had been attacked by the students, sons of the bourgeoisie.

But now the Gelmini reforms have passed and are law. Many useless courses at minor universities will no longer qualify for funding, and the professors’ grip on their offices, many into their 80s, which so stifles emerging talent, will end. No Italian university is in the top 250 in the world rankings (Britain has three in the top ten). It is not lack of talent: often you read of a breakthrough in science or medicine by Italian researchers, but always at a foreign university. Italy desperately needs centres of excellence to attract the high flyers into staying. These reforms, so bitterly objected to by the ‘Black Block’ international rentamob, are a beginning down that path, and those, like me, who criticise Berlusconi for doing nothing, should allow him to chalk one up.

25 December, 2010

You didn't know?

The Meteorological Office says we are having cold winters because of global warming.

Of course, of course. Why didn't I realise when I took that plastic bag away from the supermarket that it would cause freezing weather?

My fault, sorry.

He knows if you've been naughty or nice

Particular Christmas greetings to Salvatore Politini who having collected the pizzo, or protection money from a shop near Catania, Sicily, was arrested by a police officer dressed as Father Christmas, who had been giving out sweets to children in the car park.




Politini was also carrying a panettone Christmas cake, which he had obtained after putting the squeeze on a neighbouring bar.

Auguri!

A happy Christmas to everyone, particularly those stranded at airports or unable to see their family.

Sorry to tell you that here in Rome it is nice and warm, if a bit wet.

21 December, 2010

Politicians: the self-importance index

What do we think of our politicians? How bad? Hmm, as bad as that, eh?

Of coure some politicians are clearly mad, some are living in the 1950s or '60s but for the rest we should strive towards a system of evaluation. 'By their fruits ye shall know them' ran the Sermon on the Mount but I'm not sure it referred to politicians, most of whom achieve so little that there are no..er..fruits.

One way I favour is to make a measurement of a politician's perceived sense of his own importance relative to his actual importance. It is in the nature of politicians that this ratio should be high, but surely no one has a higher self-importance index than John 'Vince' Cable.

Cable is all over today's papers saying tht if he is pushed too far he could resign and bring the Government down. I have two problems with this: first, it is far from clear that his resignation would bring the Government down; his colleagues are getting too much pleasure from their ministerial cars and salaries to want to hand it all in on account of some diva's complaint from the Business Department.

Second, it is not clear to whom the threat is directed: if he were to cause an immediate election his party, the Liberal Democrats would be annihilated.

'Let your light so shine before men' says the Sermon, 'that they may see your good works'. But it also says that it's the meek that's going to inherit the earth.

20 December, 2010

The Queen's Head

Er.. no. not the pub.

There are reports that new legislation - originally designed by Peter Mandelson if I'm not mistaken - would have allowed someone to buy the Royal Mail and not put the Queen's Head on the postage stamps.

In the way that her head doesn't appear if I send an email, or a fax, or an instant message, a blogpost, a tweet or even on my post if I have a franking machine.

Why is it the Royal Mail anyway? I can understand why Victoria wanted it but she has been dead more than a century. I can understand why 'Royal' support was given to the animal charity the RSPCA, although she should have withdrawn it when that body became political. The Germans call theirs Deutsche Post, the Italians Poste Italiane. British Post could have been denatioanlised without fuss, like British Airways, which didn't have a picture of the Queen on its aeroplanes.

Let's take a small step into the 20th century at least: Off with her head!

19 December, 2010

Sunday Thinkpiece: Prince Charles

It used to be that the only time you heard the words ‘British Constitution’ was when someone wanted to test if you were drunk. Also ‘She stood outside Wilkinson’s Fish Sauce Shop welcoming him in’. Happy days.

Now, unfortunately, you hear it quite a lot.

Two of the reasons for this are the way Europe seems to be running our lives and the Coalition Government. Both have been discussed in these pages before and will be again. The third is The Prince of Wales.

I don’t know what it is about the title, but of the last five, four have caused no end of trouble. George, who became George IV, known as Prinny, was surrounded by sexual and financial scandal, as was Queen Victoria’s son Albert, who became Edward VII. Whilst George (later George V) seemed to have lived a sober and constitutional life, his only problem being that he was a crashing bore, his son, later Edward VIII caused all that trouble with the abdication. He also wanted to influence social policy, having been on several visits to the poor and saying ‘something must be done’.

Now we have Prince Charles.

It seems that 50% of the population want him to give up the monarchy in favour of William. It should be noticed, however, that this is because they think he is barking mad. It started out with him admitting that he talked to his plants, which of course many gardeners do, and since then almost his every utterance (and to be fair, there have been many) has been portrayed as if he were a couple of scones short of a cream tea. He speaks regularly on the environment, conservation, genetically modified foods, alternative medicine and architecture, none of which really interest the average chap. The public, of course, liked his first wife and feels his second either doesn’t have her winning ways or is somehow responsible for her death.

But that is not how the establishment are thinking. They have another beef. Here is Sir Max Hastings in the Daily Mail last Saturday with an article entitled ‘Why Prince Charles is too dangerous to be king’. Hastings, I should mention, is a fully paid up member of the establishment and former editor of the conservative Daily Telegraph.

Hastings contrasts the reigning Queen ‘At the heart of the Queen’s brilliant success for almost 60 years is that we have been denied the slightest clue as to what she thinks about anything but dogs and horses’ with Prince Charles in a quote from Jeremy Paxman : ‘The Prince had ¬consistently misunderstood or ignored a basic truth at the heart of the relationship between ¬royalty and the people.

‘He seemed to believe his significance lay in what he believed and did. The truth was simply that his significance lay in who he was.’

Hastings continues. ‘A courtier (Max moves in the right circles, you see) recently said to me: ‘You shouldn’t worry about this. Charles knows that from the day he becomes King, he must keep his mouth shut.’ But in the same week, one of the Prince’s intimate circle privately said: ‘The nation is ready for a visionary monarchy.’

I do not believe (writes Maxy) that if the Prince and those around him think any such thing, Charles would hit trouble as fast and hard as a truck crashing into a wall when he’s the occupant of the throne. ‘

I quote Hastings because his article is recent. Plenty of establishment types are thinking and saying the same.

For myself I don’t really agree. I don’t agree that the Queen has not given ‘the slightest clue as to what she thinks about anything but dogs and horses’ – look at her support for the coalition – nor that it would necessarily be a good thing if that were the case. And I do believe that the Prince’s utterances will in large part cease when he becomes king. There seems to be an uninformed dichotomy between saying he is an idiot and that he is so intelligent he is dangerous.

What I and I rather fancy a lot of people think is that when the Prince says something I disagree with I find him an irritating unconstitutional nuisance, and when he says something I agree with I thank God we have someone who is prepared to say such things.

Perhaps one of the problems lies with primogeniture itself. People live a lot longer and far from having the problem of someone becoming King at 5 years old like Louis XIV and having to lead the army, we have the problem of what to do with them as they wait patiently to step up to the top job. George IV became king at 57, Edward VII at 59 and Charles is already 62.

What think should have happened is that the Queen should have abdicated in 1982 after the Falklands War, or at the latest 1987 after being on the throne 35 years. Charles would have been in the job and largely quiet for twenty odd years, and now getting ready to hand over to his son William.

One of the problems is that we don’t have a constitutional definition of what either the Prince or the monarch should be doing. I see them as guardians of the constitution and it has to be said that in that job the Queen has failed: giving away power to the Prime Minister rather than parliament, clinging to the Commonwealth even when it was just a lobby group of unpleasant dictators who wanted to show South Africa as worse than them, and failing the nation over the coalition.

We cannot have the primogeniture system perverted to bypass the intelligent in favour of a younger, prettier model. I cannot imagine Prince Charles will make a worse fist of this than his mother and believe he should be given the chance. If for whatever reason he doesn’t take the job we should have a Republic, with a President (Perhaps Charles himself as the first one) attuned to his role as keeper of the constitution.

16 December, 2010

Global Warming

From Armstrong and Miller:

Reporting Italy

'Riot breaks out on streets of Rome as scandal-hit Silvio Berlusconi survives' (the Daily Mail) was just about typical. If you read any of the British, German or French press you will have gained the impression that the rioters, seeing that Berlusconi had survived, took to the streets.

Of course the demonstration was planned some time ago. It was about changes to education policy and cuts to cultural spending.

It is not of particular relevance but I would mention that Italy's education system is a fiasco and almost any change to it would be for the better. In fact Mariastella Gelmini's modest proposals might drag Italy's post primary school education into the 20th century (not the 21st). And the problem with spending on culture is that the money disappears; look at Pompeii: fully funded, money stolen, no expenditure, falling down.

However that is not the point; it is a good thing that students demonstrate. The violence was heavily instituted by non student, often non-Italian professional troublemakers and they would have done that if Silvio had won or lost.

I know Silvio is a bit of  joke; I know most countries wouldn't want him as leader; but the Italians, for the moment, do, and some better reporting in the non-Italian press might give a fairer picture of what is going on.

15 December, 2010

The importance of students

In Rome they besieged the parliament. So many police were put on the streets that it was almost impossible to go round the central area, even on foot.

In England the Prince of Wales and Mrs Prince of Wales (why isn’t she the Princess of Wales?) are besieged in their car and Mrs PoW is said to have been poked with a stick. A protester has had emergency brain surgery after allegedly being hit over the head with a truncheon and another says he was knocked out of his wheelchair.

The other day I was reading a good article by Ben Brogan. He made the point that the Budget analysis contained a summary of how it would affect rich and poor, but not of how it would affect old against young. ‘..the young are getting clobbered while the old escape with their pensions and mortgage-free houses intact.’.. not to mention winter fuel allowance and free TV licences.

So how have successive governments got away with this? One answer may lie in a survey quoted in Political Betting. A lot of the students’ ire is directed at the Liberal Democrats, who said they would not allow any increase in tuition fees. Of course, just like Conservative supporters on Europe, electoral change and much else, that idea went out of the window as soon as the coalition saw the inside of Downing Street. But had the students really supported the Lib Dems?

The statistics show turnout among 18-24 year old women was 39%; amongst 18-24 year old men 50%.

The turnout of women 55+ was 73% and of men 55+ 76%.

If the young don’t vote, the politicians probably think they don’t matter; and voting, let’s face it, is probably more effective than poking a grandmother with a stick.

14 December, 2010

Thought for the Day

From Douglas Carswell MP:

"Fact 1: During 2011, Portugal must raise Euro 38bn, Belgium Euro 85bn, Spain Euro 210bn, and Italy Euro 374bn (Goldman Sachs report quoted in Telegraph).


Fact 2: Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy need consumer spending to fall by 15pc for their debts to become sustainable (Centre for Economics and Business Research report)

Guys. It's over. "

Silvio survives!

There were three votes in it. Three heavily pregnant women turned up for the vote, one woman caused a fight in parliament when she changed her mind. But in the end Silvio won, and how he won will soon be forgotten.

We have a friend who is an academic and of the right. He had two interesting statements, some time long before the vote. The first was that the reason Fini rebelled and set out his own party was not from any serious conviction (no one here thinks politicians are capable of that) but a fear that he might be usurped as heir apparent to Berlusconi by the increasing popularity of Giuliano Tremonti, the Finance Minister. It is interesting that in left wing Italy the finance minister who makes the cuts should be dangerously popular.

The second thing our friend said said was that it would come to a vote and Fini would be polverizzato.

If three votes haven't completely pulverised Gianfranco Fini his position at the forefront of Italian politics now looks very difficult and his position as Speaker of the House all but untenable.

In England the disappointment was dripping from the lips of the BBC announcers and commentators who cannot understand Italian politics. In fact Berlusconi is still quite popular - more so than any front line British or American politician - despite the student riots and the bleating of the soft left.

The way to beat Berlusconi has been mentioned several times in this blog: promise him he can become President. The way for Berlusconi to win has also been mentioned a number of times: do something for the Italian people.

Perhaps after this Silvio, his supporters and his adversaries will all come to their senses.

But it has been fun, not least hearing the incredulous disappointment of the British commentariat.

Silvio's Big Day

Today is the vote of no confidence in the government, although effectively it is a vote about Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi has dominated Italian politics for a decade. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of Italy is being decided.

Apparently it is down to one vote.

PS Silvio survives in the Senate by 162-135

12 December, 2010

Yesterday's upheavals

I quite failed to notice that 11th December was the anniversary of the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 and of the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1991 which created the European Union.

This year it seems to have passed without any unfortunate constitutional upheavals.

Your money in their hands (No.652)

This week's prize for egregious time (and therefore money) wasting goes to Charlie Crist, the outgoing governor of Florida, who, having set up a special committee on the matter, has secured a pardon for Jim Morrison, singer of The Doors. Morrison faced charges of desecrating public morals and profanity while drunk but died in 1971, nearly 40 years ago, having jumped bail.

The apology should be due to his fans who bought his records, impressed by his independent lifestyle. They now realise he wasn't even guilty of desecrating public morals (don't you love that phrase?).

They should have their money back.

Sunday Thinkpiece: who will save the euro?

‘Can the euro survive?’ asks Lionel Barber in the Financial Times. ‘Who’s going to save the euro?’ asks Claude Nougat.


The answer is that the euro doesn’t deserve to survive. When the idea was first mooted, back in the Maastricht negotiations in 1992, the problems were clear. It wasn’t just eccentrics like me: a whole raft of economists and senior politicians pointed out that economies were going to be moving at different speeds, and that unless Europe had control of the fiscal levers the new currency was going to be subject to unbearable stresses.

In some respects the problems are the same as we see in England. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard or read some one say ‘Now the economic policy is in the hands of the independent Bank of England...’. But it’s not economic policy the Bank controls, it’s only monetary policy. The other strand of economic policy, fiscal policy, or control of government spending and taxes, still lies in the hands of the Treasury. So Gordon Brown, while muttering about prudence and reminding us that it was he who ‘made the Bank of England independent’, was able to increase government spending beyond the level of imprudence to the level of madness. Now every year the Governor of the Bank of England has to write to the Chancellor explaining why inflation will be over three percent again, despite both of them knowing it was Gordon’s fault. Before long interest rates will have to rise to deal with this inflation and that will slow economic recovery.

Now imagine this uneven mess multiplied by 16. Spending in the Eurozone is in the hands of people as different as the Greeks and the Germans. The Greeks were, as Greeks are, corrupt and greedy, while the Germans were, as Germans are, cautious and prudent.

The point I am making is that they knew all this, the founding fathers of the euro. They knew that there really should have been political unification (which would include Eurozone control over countries’ budgets) before monetary union, but at the time they wanted all members of the EU to join and there was no way Britain, Denmark and Ireland were going to accept that. So cunningly they embarked on the euro project knowing there would most likely be a crisis and believing that that would trigger political union. Now, in the midst of the crisis they’re still thrashing around, the European political class, trying to take away a country’s control of its own expenditure and taxes, and therefore its freedom. George Osborne was right to prevent them forcing a corporate tax increase on Ireland.

Ireland is now embarked on a downward spiral of reducing expenditure, thereby reducing the tax take, thereby necessitating lower expenditure. It will most likely default. The Eurozone is reaping the harvest of its own policies. It was conceived in dishonesty and doesn’t deserve to survive.

11 December, 2010

Thoughts on corruption

Silvio Berlusconi has been accused of buying MPs before the forthcoming no confidence vote.

Most people will assume he is guilty, but for myself it has got me wondering whether surrendering your principles for money is worse than surrendering them for power.

In the UK Liberal Democrat MPs have been offered ministerial positions, that is to say jobs at the public expense, in return for their vote on the tuition fees bill.

At least Silvio uses his own money.

09 December, 2010

UK University Tuition fees explained

This from Nick Robinson, political editor of the BBC:

'The minister who introduced student tuition fees now says a graduate tax may be better even though he once described the idea as unworkable...

he's opposing the man who pledged to oppose any increase in fees who now insists it's the right thing to do...

... who's in coalition with a man who wrote a manifesto promising that his party would scrap fees but is now planning to double them.'

Hope that's clear.

Olympian freebie

While the world is talking about Julian Assange and Wikileaks some more embarrassing information has slipped out, or rather been dragged out. It is about the Olympics and is in response to a Freedom of Information demand by The Spectator and Games Monitor. The organisers wanted to keep this secret, and held out for two years.

The official language of the 2012 London games will be...French. English will be the second language. At the stadia the Union Flag will fly fifth in precedence, after the Olympics flag, the flag of the London games, the UN flag and the Greek flag.

The freeloaders – the International Olympic Committee, foreign sports administrators, guest freeloaders etc – will have to be supplied with 40,000 hotel rooms and 700 cars with drivers, a further 400 having pool cars.

It’s not just the cost of all this that object to, it is the shame of a once proud nation having to give in to the demands of a corrupt, unelected clique and then pay for the privilege. Oh, and I should like to know why they were trying to keep it a secret.

08 December, 2010

The way to do it.

Congratulations to the people of Slovakia who, according to Agence France Presse, have instituted a system whereby MPs are paid less according to the size of the budget deficit, at a rate of double the deficit percentage. So the current proposed deficit of 7.8% would see their pay reduce by 15.6%.

An ideal system for the European Parliament.

07 December, 2010

On badgers and music and RP

I was looking forward to the programme and rearranged my schedule to hear it. There would be 30 minutes about a badger that Shackleton took to the Antarctic. It seemed one of those wonderful curiosities that the BBC unearths from time to time. 'The badger survived' promised a happy ending.

Anyway it turned out to be a banjo (or nasal guitar). Not quite so interesting. In fact not itneresting at all.

We really have to do something about the pronunciation on the BBC. Many of the more senior correspondents and news readers speak clearly and well, but for some years it has been impossible to get a job there unless you had a regional accent. I remember tuning into a programme about stockings, only to find it was about stalking; the late Michael Vestey wrote of a programe on the importance to us all of psychopaths (cycle-paths).

Italy, Germany and France have greatly varying regional accents, but maintain a system of received pronunciation, which everyone can understand. The BBC finds it not politically correct to do so, and I am finding I am paying for an organisation which conveys news in a manner I often can't understand.

I have noticed no howls of public anger about the BBC's badgers - sorry, budgets - being cut. In my view, that is because the BBC is not providing an adequate service. It could begin to change by offering received pronunciation on its news service, keeping the regional brogues for the local stuff.

06 December, 2010

More news from Italy

OK, quiz time. For one point tell me who or what these quotations are about and for another who said or wrote them


‘You who think. You who imagine. You who transform reality into dream. You express the desire to be there, to resist. You who want to give, you see a universe without limits and confines, a world which believes in progress. You who love. You who, simply, are.’


‘I am absolutely in agreement that I am a certain age, and that I ought to leave sooner or later, but I shall pass the baton when I have finished the programme, but never to the spivs of the old politics. I am a world star and they want to push me out.’

Sorry if the first one made you feel a little queasy. They are both about Silvio Berlusconi; the first is a poem by Lory del Santo, model and former girlfriend of Eric Clapton, and the second is by the great man himself.

Both quotations depict Silvio as a man with a mission, driven, like a knight of old, to perform certain specific tasks while still on this earth. However the first... no, no, I am sorry I can’t read it again.

It’s Berlusconi time in Italian politics as the government faces a vote of no confidence on 14th December. This blog will be giving live coverage (No, it won’t, Ed.)..

The rebels, led by his former deputy Gianfranco Fini, claim to have enough signatures to the motion to unseat him, in which case there will either be elections or the President could impose a technical government.

The problem is that the people, whilst they no longer seem to give credence to the errant knight image (difficult to pull off if you consort with tarts), still do not seem to have confidence in the opposition, the left wing Partito Democratico. And many, whilst supporting the removal of Berlusconi in theory, would be horrified if by backing Fini they allowed the left back in. And many MPs are conscious that they owe their comfortable positions in life to Berlusconi.

So whilst this may be end of Silvio, my advice is not to write him off just yet.

04 December, 2010

Germany and the euro

The Guardian today quotes Angela Merkel as saying 'if that is what the euro has become perhaps we should join some other club'. Naturally a host of commentators have rushed to mention that Germany derives great benefit from the euro, and indeed this is the case. Germany exports a huge amount to countries on the periphery of Europe and if it left the currency union the remaining euro currency would fall against the new Deutsche Mark, pricing those exports out of the market.

But I think people are missing something here. Europe, America and Japan are awash with cash, and as signs of the recession fade some of that is going to have to be hauled in. Germans are terrified of inflation; they have all heard of the experiences in 1923 and are going to push for a tightening of monetary conditions just as others need them to be kept loose. To control inflation they will either need hugher interest rates or a stronger currency. What will happen then?

The problems of the euro go beyond sovereign default.

03 December, 2010

Unfair competition

Still on the subject of sport: from Padua we have a glimpse of the rich fabric of Italian politics.

Every year St Anthony of Padua is celebrated with the running of a marathon. Now, in discussions about next year's race, Councillor Pietro Giovannoni, of the Northern League, has proposed cancelling the subsidy for the race on the grounds that 'it is always won by African athletes or foreigners in underpants'.


 

The World Cup (2)

Andy Anson, the head of England's failed bid to stage the World Cup in 2018, has said that the blame lies squarely with The Sunday Times and the BBC for investigating corruption in F.I.F.A.

It is possible he is right. England got only two votes, one of which was from our own delegate (we assume). For myself I should rather have a free press than the World Cup, but there can now be no barrier to a comprehensive investigation and I hope that our investigative journalists get to the bottom of the matter.

30 November, 2010

The World Cup

There is talk that an investigation by British television reporters into alleged corruption in F.I.F.A. (Fédération Internationale de Football Association - why does it have a French name?) may lose Britain the opportunity to stage the World Cup in 2018. You might have thought that they'd be grateful to our chaps for rooting out corruption in their ranks, however no: they don't like being investigated, you see.

Why on earth didn't we think about this at the time of being awarded the Olympics? There is massive corruption in the International Olympic Committee and our journalists, with a bit of pot-stirring, could have saved us billions of pounds and got the thing won by the French.

'You cannot hope to bribe or twist
Thank God! The British journalist
But seeing what the man will do unbribed,
There's no occasion to.

(Humbert Wolfe)

Picasso and the electrician

Call me old fashioned, but I had thought everyone paid their electrician with modern art. What else is there to do with the stuff?

'Rewire the garage, mate? Couldn't do it for less than a Chagall or a small Modigliani sculpture, much as I'd like to'.

29 November, 2010

The Euro

We had the Irish bailout on Sunday night, and it was no surprise, at least to me, that the euro fell against major currencies on Monday morning. The European Commission and the European Central Bank seem to be living in a world of their own.

First, announcing major events on a Sunday night. This is the clearest sign of desperation. Assuage the markets before Tokyo opens, in the hope of a bit of good press. Naive.

Second, they then all sit back and assume the problem has gone away, just as they did with Greece.

The nature of markets is this: if everyone knew, for example, that the dollar was going to fall, you wouldn’t make any money selling it. To make money you have to be the first, and this means constantly testing the accepted structure, just as the markets did against sterling and the lira in 1992 until the markets won and the status quo lost. It may not be tomorrow or next week, but it is clear, now the scare is out there, that the markets will have a tilt at Portugal, Spain, perhaps Italy.

The only way to prevent this is to have a long term plan. I wrote many months ago that the Eurozone either needed a procedure for a country to leave it, or it needed a procedure for allowing a country to default. At present there is neither

Wikileaks

Some quarter of a million US diplomatic cables have been published on the Wikileaks website. I can’t be bothered to look: the news that the Saudis (Sunni Muslims) don’t want the Iranians (Shi’ite Muslims) to have a nuclear bomb is hardly earth shattering. Nor is the information that Mr Sarkozy is thought a bully and Mr Cameron is considered lightweight.


The cautious, correct, conservative press is outraged. Some B-list opinion former on the radio described Mr Assange as a traitor. Here is The Spectator: ‘Just ask yourself a few questions. Will the West be safer if the Saudi leader cannot trust that a conversation he has with a US envoy will remain secret?...’

Let’s deal with this. The diplomatic cables were sent and received, and then the US put them all on to a giant intranet. They were not labelled ‘Top Secret’ but merely ‘Secret’. The number of people who had access to them from this intranet was in excess of 2.5 million. Two and a half million people could look at this information. And yet the USA is shattered, outraged, that one of these 2.5 million leaked the stuff.

So in answer to the question, a Saudi leader is now at least aware that any conversation he has with a US envoy is not going to remain secret, and is going to be far more cautious, and the world is thereby going to be far safer, with this knowledge.

Far from being a traitor, Mr Assange has done the world a favour. Only a couple of years after the USA threatened to stop sharing secrets with Great Britain on the grounds that it couldn’t be trusted, we now find that it has been spraying its – and our – secrets around the ether without the least care. And it is horrified when they become public.

Grow up is what I say.

27 November, 2010

The Met Office

The British Meteorological Office, a largely discredited body ripe for cost savings, has predicted that this year will be the warmest on record. They may be right – a broken clock is right twice a day – but I would point out we are still in November and the snow has arrived earlier than for many years.


The Met Office predicted that 2003 would be the hottest ever (and of course it wasn’t) then that 2007 would be (nope). The hottest year on record is still 1998. Twelve years ago.

As Michael O’Leary of Ryan Air pointed out: " it is absolutely bizarre that the people who can't tell us what the ******* weather is next Tuesday can predict with absolute precision what the ******* global temperatures will be in 100 years' time."

Benefits for all?

Quite a sensible suggestion from lapdancing bar owner Peter Stringfellow about the British winter fuel allowance. He said from his home in Majorca (yes, they are quite happy to send it to pensioners living in Majorca) that he had been trying to give it back without success. He is, of course, a multi-millionaire and doesn’t need it, but they send it to multi-millionaires as well.

The answer, says Stringfellow, is to get you to tick a box saying if you want it. Simple.

Let’s now hear from Mr Duncan Smith.

26 November, 2010

German Conscription

For me it is something from the 1950s: the idea that young people should be forced to serve in the army.

Conscription ended in the USA in 1973 (they had Vietnam) and in Britain in 1960, but it has been kept on in Germany, alone amongst the major European countries.

Military commanders have always thought it was a waste of time training reluctant, unfit recruits and there were serious doubts about whether they would actually fight if the time came. And social liberals like me always believed it was merely a way of keeping the young under control. Now it is to be scrapped, the excellent Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg calling a halt to it by 1st July, 2011.

An intresting statistic is that more than 40% of draftees were turned away on health grounds.

25 November, 2010

Your money in their hands (No.361)

It isn't a new phenomenon; however tough a politician might talk when he is out of office, give him power and he becomes the usual, statist, big government type. They can't resist it.

With Mr Cameron it seems the change has been swifter than with most. He enjoys power and whilst talking about cutting expenditure, can't resist lavishing a little moolah on a pet project.

Cameron's latest idea is to spend several million pounds of the taxpayers' money creating a happiness index. The way to judge this is to guess what will happen to the calculations if they come out wrong, if Mr Cameron's corporatist, eurobureaucracy-friendly, social democracy sucking mish-mash of a government in fact makes us more unhappy (that's certainly the effect it is having on me). The index will quietly disappear.

More likely the creators of the happiness index will decide what is likely to happen and design the index to give a positive result, just as Gordon Brown defined child poverty in terms of it being something he could cure with a simple, planned tax reduction.

They're all the same.
 

24 November, 2010

Royal Wedding

Politicians just can't resist trying to look generous towards us at our expense. When sometimes they give us back some of our own money they make it look as if it were their money being handed out to the people. Mr Cameron's latest fit of pseudo largesse is to grant everyone in Britain a bank holiday for the royal wedding.

People who carp at the £50m cost of this wedding might care to reflect that each day the UK earns around £3.5 bn. Of course you don't have to give up work for a day but most will do so, and of course we don't earn nothing on days when no one goes into work: my bank will still be earning from me even when it is closed by paying next to nothing on  my money; and since people have to eat on a bank holiday they'll buy more food the day before.

It should also be said that since this 'free' holiday comes between Easter Monday and the communist 1st May holiday, many people will decide to make what Italians call the bridge: you can go away for 11 days at a cost of three days' holiday. Indeed, getting away from the televised schlock this is likely to be seems like a good idea.

One paper estimates the total cost to the economy as £5 bn, which makes the £50m look fairly good value.

22 November, 2010

20 years on

It is twenty years today since Mrs Thatcher resigned. It was one of those 'where were you when President Kennedy was shot' moments. For myself I was driving down the M4 motorway and nearly crashed. I hadn't realised the Conservative Party could be so stupid as to ditch a winner, or so nasty. As Charles Moore said, if she was failing she should have been allowed to fail at the ballot box.

Within two years John Major's pro-European policies had brought Britain to its knees. We had to leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism, the pound collapsed and interest rates went through the ceiling. Since then we have had five lame duck years of John Major, the duplicitousness of Tony Blair, the insane spending spree of Gordon Brown and the cheating David Cameron accepting your vote and changing his policies afterwards.

What a crew!

Going off at half cock

Far too much in the media about what the Pope may or may not have said to a German journalist about the use of condoms. Publication date is tomorrow and it might have been better to wait and read the interview. But as usual the press grasped at any sensationalist straw it could. At first it was reported that Benedict was happy about the use of condoms. This was doubted by the BBC's veteran reporter David Willey, who said correctly that such a major change in dogma would hardly be revealed in one of the back pages of the Osservatore Romano (not Osservatero, as the BBC News channel pronounced it).

Then it was reported that he had said condoms were OK under certain circumstances. Now it appears that the circumstances are for sex between homosexuals because it was not interfering with the making of a new life.

Next the old boy will be criticised for discriminating in favour of gays, since they are allowed condoms and heterosexuals not.

A good rule of thumb is that if you don't know what the story is, don't report it.

20 November, 2010

To reign over us?

A lot of hoo-ha in the press today about Prince Charles saying Camilla might become Queen (as his consort).

Most of this is a throwback to the Princess Diana mania which gripped the nation in the couple of years after her death, but which has fortunately died down.

My advice to people who have a problem with this is to go into your nearest primary school and ask the assembled children what the wife of a King is called.

The wee frees

Startling news from Scotland. The Free Church of Scotland has decided to allow music (music!) and hymn singing in its churches.

It reminds me of the story of a ‘wee free’ minister being asked what the Church thought of sex. He replied that on balance they were against it, on the grounds that it might lead to dancing.

19 November, 2010

The House of Lords

Another clutch of semi-celebrities, time servers and political donors are appointed to the ermine. More Conservatives than Labour, of course, because last time there were more Labour than Conservatives. See?

Now there are 700 or so Lords and Ladies, more than there are elected MPs. They have little or no constitutional or moral standing, appointed as they are by politicians. They can't (and shouldn't be able to) override the elected house, so all they can do is make suggestions, a task which could be done by civil servants.

This system desperately needs dragging at least into the last century. I know the government has a lot on its plate but I should have thought it was now urgent.

The only appointment which pleased me was the elevation of former MP Michael Lord, who becomes Lord Lord.

18 November, 2010

Signs of the times (374)

Ian Dale reports that two convicted murderers in America, Edmund Zagorski and Ralph Baze, were seeking a judicial review of Business Secretary Vince Cable's granting of an export licence for sodium thiopental, a drug used in executions.

Expensive business, a judicial review. How are they paying the lawyers? Easy: we grant them legal aid. The taxpayer pays for the foreign murderers and for the defence of the politician.

How could we make a saving here?

Signs of the times

An American couple, Pete and Alisha Arnold, have set up a website www.birthornot.com to ask for readers’ votes as to whether they should abort their unborn child, which is, apparently, perfectly healthy.

They have uploaded scan images to the site. The unborn child has been nicknamed ‘Wiggles’.

In inviting your vote, the site says ‘By voting on whether to continue or abort an actual pregnancy, you are doing so much more then simply telling an elected representative your feelings. You are actually changing something in the real world.’

Currently the vote is in favour of abortion. Mrs Arnold writes: 'I'm not convinced that I want to change the status quo. I feel that as I age I've actually gotten more selfish and set in my ways.

'I'm afraid that I will eventually regret starting a family and "settling down", as they say.’

It might be that the site is some sort of self-publicity, which would itself constitute a sign of the times. There are claims on it that the pro-abortion vote comes from a 'sick humour' website. Or it may be that people are concerned as to what this couple's reproduction might do to the human genetic stock.

Not the accountants

Most papers report that the money men are arriving in Dublin to see what can be done for the Irish economy.

Of course it's not the accountants, it's the politicians. They will decide (in Ireland's interest, of course) what steps should be taken in return for a bailout (which Ireland says it doesn't need).

Here's something that will be on their minds.

Corporation Tax Rates

Germany 30 - 33%
France    33.33%
Ireland    12.5%

So where would you set up a business? But the Irish say firstly that low tax rates are essential for the recovery, and secondly that one of the things that made them change their minds about the Lisbon Treaty (they were told to vote again, if you remember) was the promise that they could set their own levels of taxation.

If an increase in corporation tax is forced on them, the Irish will feel traduced.

Rightly so, in my view.

16 November, 2010

Thoughts on the engagement of Prince William

Er....

Actually this isn’t really going to affect any of us too much, and I guarantee you will be hearing more from the media over the next 6-9 months than you really want or need.

But I do have a couple of thoughts.

Firstly, Miss Middleton is catapulting herself into the spotlight. Not much is at present known about her but that will change. Apparently no one has heard her speak, and it would delight me if she had somehow adopted a Birmingham accent but I think it unlikely (she was born in Reading).

Secondly she is marrying into one of the most dysfunctional families on the planet. Of the Queen’s four children three have been divorced. And the males of the family are famously unable to keep their trousers buttoned up: the Duke of Edinburgh, despite being 89, has a ‘confidant’, Prince Charles married his ‘confidant’. What is the poor girl to expect?

They are marrying in 2011 because the following year will be the Queen’s diamond jubilee, and in April of that year the old dear will be 86. Given the string of occasions when she has been ‘poorly advised’ (which is what we say when she had made a complete fool of herself, see here) it is high time she abdicated. That way Charles would become king, which would make it constitutionally impossible for him to do what he does at the moment (interfering), and Miss Middleton would become Princess of Wales, at the age of 30, which is quite late enough.

Thanks Ma’am, but goodbye.

The future of the euro

Well, what are they going to do?

A look at the recent history of the eurozone does not make happy reading.

When Greece suddenly admitted it was bust it seems Eurozone leaders were caught on the hop. An all embracing package was quickly put together with the Eurozone contributing €440 bn. This was supposed to be so large, particularly with handouts from the IMF, that it acted like America’s ‘Shock and Awe’ military strategy. Two unfortunate things then happened. The first was that Chancellor Merkel had to explain it to the German voters who seem to think - imagine this – that the Greeks are idle, dishonest and overpaid.

The second thing that happened was Ireland. The Irish banks fuelled a property boom and when the bubble burst were insolvent. They had to be guaranteed by the Irish State which is now itself insolvent.

I often complain about the knee-jerk reaction in Europe that any problem can be solved by more regulation. But the first thing a regulator needs to have is market knowledge. In Britain this was held by the Bank of England which spoke regularly to the banks on its patch and knew what was going on in the international markets. That is why it was such a disaster when Gordon Brown replaced it with people who had no idea. What was the Irish Government doing, while its banks piled up their balance sheets with dodgy property lending? What was the European Central Bank doing? They must have had access to the figures – the banks have to publish their accounts. The problem wasn’t that nobody did anything, it is that the people who might have done something didn’t know what was going on.

The coming together of the two problems – Ireland and the German voter – forced people to start admitting the existence of the elephant in the room. I posted about it on Nov 2nd. Merkel needed to reassure her voters and said that of course if there were another bail out the bond holders would have to take a haircut. That meant that a country (Ireland) could be permitted to be actually going bust and not paying its creditors. And it seemed fair: why should investors be allowed to buy high yielding Irish debt confident in the knowledge that those hard working Germans would rescue them if anything went wrong?

But it was something better left unsaid. Investors, naturally, priced Irish debt even higher, because of the risk of not being repaid in full. The Irish borrowing rate went up to 7% when I last posted and upwards to nearly 9%, which Ireland can’t afford to pay, so it is more likely to go bust.

So what will they do, the Irish, the ECB and the Germans?

One problem is that lack of market confidence is contagious. The ECB knows that Portugal, Spain and perhaps Italy are waiting in the wings. Another is that this is going to get worse. German productivity is so much greater than in the peripheral countries that the wealth gap will widen.

Chancellor Merkel said yesterday that ‘If the euro fails, Europe fails’ – somewhat hyperbolic, but it might reassure the markets that there is some determination to resolve this. The only thing which will satisfy the German taxpayer is if failing economies are properly supervised. That means a loss of sovereignty: their budgets will be imposed by the ECB. Ireland doesn’t like the idea, and who can blame them?

So we are in the ridiculous position of countries being forced to accept handouts whether they like it or not, and the creeping shadow of what in truth was always going to happen: monetary union leading to political unification under the hegemony of Germany.

14 November, 2010

Those aircraft carriers

The Italian financial paper Il Sole 24 Ore reports that as part of a budget reduction programme the USA is considering cancelling the Joint Strike Fighter.

This means that not only will our aircraft carriers have no aircraft for ten years, but they won't even have any then.

Perhaps we could borrow something from the Chinese.

The Queen and democracy

David Laws, lest we forget, fiddled £40,000 from the taxpayer which he paid to his homosexual lover presenting it as rent for a room in his house. Laws resigned, but apparently will get a senior government post soon. Just the sort of chap we want running the country.


Anyway, Laws has used his six months off to write a memoir of the events surrounding the formation of the coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. In it he is reported to have said that The Queen connived with Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg at keeping Gordon Brown in office while they stitched a deal together.

And stitched is the appropriate word. The electorate was stitched up, as the two men decided on policies which were not present in their manifestos, without deigning to consult the voters. Her Majesty appears to have been fully informed as to what was going on, favouring undemocratic rule by the political class above the traditional system of the people deciding how they are governed.

There is something quite, quite rotten here. Buckingham Palace has some explaining to do.

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi

I don’t really know what people are expecting from the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. She leaves her house to enter a country still under the grip of the generals. They can even say that there has recently been an election, which they have won. Despite several foreign leaders having stated publicly that it was rigged, this may still carry some weight inside the country, which doesn’t have a free press either, and in China, which doesn’t have free elections either. India has already said that it accepts the result, an astonishing thing for a democracy to say, in particular one which aspires to positions on the world stage.

But if India and China have not covered themselves with glory in this matter, nor has the west. We saw fit to invade Afghanistan and Iraq because we were unhappy about what was going on there, leaving Aung San Suu Kyi to her fate. I once heard her, in one of the few interviews she has given, being quite disparaging about the West. She doesn’t like the consumerism and profit motive which drive us.

So when Western leaders queue up to be photographed with her, as they did with Mandela, they may find some reluctance. She will know why they are doing it and may not be interested in what we have to offer.

11 November, 2010

Nov 11th

I don't attend war memorials but every year on this day I do try to have a think about it all. When I was young the First and Second World wars were in the past, Korea and Vietnam were other people's wars.

Now Tony Blair's forays into military adventure have made it all a bit more real. The Afghan war has gone on longer than WW1 and WW2 together.

I yield to no one in my admiration for Britain's armed forces but sometimes, on this day, I wonder if it wouldn't have been preferable to have been good at something else.

News from the madhouse

I don’t suppose it will come as a surprise to anyone that the EU auditors have refused to sign off on the accounts. This is the seventeenth year running. We do know that a Hungarian company received £350,000 for a dog hydrotherapy project (that isn’t an adjective, its a hydrotherapy unit to improve the lifestyle of dogs), that £4.5 million was spent on a fleet of limousines in Strasbourg (there is already one in Brussels) and that EU officials spent £4.4 million on a cultural centre for themselves. Of course all this is as nothing to the usual fiddles. Millions are spent on persuading people not to smoke, and more millions are spent on subsidising tobacco crops in the EU. The fiddling of agricultural subsidies, particularly in the South, is nowhere near being tackled. Each year the propaganda publicity budget increases by millions, so we are paying them to tell us how wonderful they are.

It has got to stop and the only way it is going to stop is if countries refuse to pay in their contribution unless the accounts receive a proper audit certificate.

In other news President Rumpy has declared that euroscepticism leads to war – opting for the nation state rather than his corrupt bureaucratic madhouse apparently means Nazism. This would be news if we hadn’t heard it so many times before and it weren’t such a discredited old chestnut. Norway has never declared war on Portugal, Switzerland has never fought Hungary, even though these two countries are not members of the EU. Britain has a rather prouder record of fighting Nazism than Rumpy’s home country Belgium.

In fact Britain could leave the EU easily and peacefully. The Common External Tariff is down to 4% and the World Trade Organisation would prevent EU countries penalising the movement of British goods (which they wouldn’t do because they sell more to us than we do to them). We would save massively on regulatory cost – more than any conceivable tariff - and not have to shell out on infrastructure projects such as useless roads in Slovenia and the attendant corruption. We would no longer be subsidising France’s farmers or Italy’s mobsters or social clubs in Belgium.

And more than anything else we would return to being a self-governing democracy. Our elected parliament would actually mean something and the executive would be accountable to the people (Rumpy's army of overpaid penpushers is accountable to no-one). None of this means we would also attack Belgium. We would tolerate them, as we do now.

The case for Britain leaving is growing and more and more are supporting it. I think Rumpy is rattled.

10 November, 2010

Ratings Agencies

I mentioned, not for the first time, back in April, that a large part of the financial bubble before it burst was caused by the ratings agencies who grade each investment. You will recall that a lot of these new financial products were rated AAA until overnight they were found to be worthless.  Incredibly, the ratings agencies are paid, not by the people who make use of the rating (the investors) but by the people borrowing the money.

Nothing has changed since the bubble burst. The delightfully named Banco Espirito Santo has fired its ratings agency, Fitch, for reducing its rating from A to BBB+. The bank's spokesman said the move 'does not reflect the financial soundness of the bank'. But who would possibly believe him?

Sign of the times

Headline in the Daily Mail: 'Teenagers who text more than 120 times a day are more likely to have had sex, use drugs and drink alcohol'.

Makes you wonder how we did these things before mobile 'phones were invented.

Cameron in China

Ah! The joys of a command economy. The Chinese feel they have to offer some crumbs to nice Mr Cameron who has come all this way, so they tell one of their airlines to order a few of those engines which keep blowing up. I bet that's just what the airline management wanted.

And then there's the abuse. British Prime Ministers have to go to China with their begging bowl and then have to voice some criticism of China in order to keep their own side happy. It must all be agreed diplomatically.

'So, you take some of these bum engines and we'll say you are a murderous regime which imprisons the Chinese nation and has cruelly invaded Tibet. That OK? Oh, not OK. So can we say that we have discussed human rights and whilst some critics might imagine there may be some room for improvement the meeting has been very friendly? Thanks Mr Hu. Nice doing business with you.'

The Chinese must think we are appalling hypocrites. We are appalling hypocrites. We could stop human rights abuse in China by simply getting together with other nations and refusing to buy Chinese products or invest in their country. We won't be doing that, so it might be better to shut up.

09 November, 2010

Keeping them busy

The Brown years found government departments beset with targets. Some say they keep the public sector focussed, others, such as critics of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, where patients were allowed to die as long as the targets were met, think they distract people from their jobs. But here is a new one, courtesy of Paul Waugh of Politics Home:

The Home Office's plan to end targets by October 2010 is listed in their business plan as 'overdue'.

They have missed their target to get rid of targets.

08 November, 2010

Obama in India

I may have misheard but I thought Obama said 'Greetings to the world's largest democracy from the world's oldest democracy'.

I hope I did mishear and that he was just mumbling (for someone famed as an orator he seems to me to have an unusually staccato delivery, as if he had been to the George Dubya school of public speaking). Of course America locked up its aboriginal citizens in reservations in the 19th century and black people couldn't vote until the 15th Amendment in 1870. Even in the 1950s blacks had to give up their seats on buses. No, Barack, I think not.

Anyway Obama has said he wants to see India as a permanent member of the UN security Council. This blog is in favour of such a move but some say Obama's plan is to have a single seat for Europe. My advice to Indians is not to hold your breath.

07 November, 2010

The BBC strikes

It is said that the recent strike at the BBC by the National Union of Journalists, over proposed changes to the pension scheme, will be the first of many. I hope not, because like many people I am reliant on the BBC and I get very bad tempered when it is not available.

I suppose these people are right to strike if they feel short changed by the management, but in these straightened times they should not expect to suffer less than millions of private sector workers. Companies can no longer afford final salary pension schemes, and if the private sector can’t afford them we shouldn’t give them to the public sector.

The problem the strikers have, I think, is with public perception. Whilst our firemen are lazy and overpaid, and most of their work has nothing to do with putting out fires, there is a certain public sympathy with people who sometimes put their lives at risk.

By contrast no one believes BBC employees are under-remunerated, irrespective of whether they are or aren’t..

These days there are private sector alternatives, such as Sky and Al Jazeera. The BBC will lose market share because of the strikes, but since there is no profit motive the workers won’t notice.

The customers will.

Entartement returns

The happy news reaches me that André-Joseph Léonard,  the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and Primate of all Belgium (got to love the title) has had a custard pie pushed into his face during an All Saints Day mass.

This process, known in French as entarter, seems to have died out a bit, which is a shame. Its principal protagonist, also a Belgian, was Noel Godin, who said he did it to pompous public figures. He is reported to have entarté the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy four times.

Léonard's entartement seems not to have been for pomposity but for his views on homosexuality.

Nevertheless, I hope this is the first of many.

04 November, 2010

Everybody-gate

Il Messaggero, the Rome newspaper, reports on yet another young lady who cannot keep her hands off ...er... politics.

Nadia Macrì, 28, has told a judicial inquiry in Palermo that she had paid sex not just with the Prime Minister (the usual) but also with the Minister of Public Administration.

However, while she claims to have received €5,000 from Mr Berlusconi, she says she charged Mr.Brunetta only €300. The reason for the difference between these two figures has not been made clear.

Whether Miss Macrì is telling the truth or not, and there appears to be some doubt in the minds of the Inquiry (which is into a prostitution and drugs ring), Berlusca badly needs a diversion: these revelations are no longer shocking, they are getting dull.

QE2 and the ship of state

Other strange goings on at the American Federal Reserve. QE2, which most British people thought was an ocean going liner, means a second round of quantitative easing: printing money and stuffing it into the economy. The Americans have just agreed to print another $600 billion.

The question to be asked – and I think the danger of over-complication here is greater than the risk of over-simplification – is ‘Where is it?’. Where is that money? We printed it (Britain printed another £200 billion) and bought assets from the banks. What had happened is that banks were charging companies and people too much for loans because of the increased risk in hard times, so the real rate of interest, that paid by you and me, was too high. So we stuffed them full of money to bring the rates down and get the economy moving.

But we keep hearing from Mr Osborne that bank lending to companies is insufficient, so where is the money we stuffed into them to improve things?

There is a real danger that politicians follow the public mood to increase regulation over the banks and then the banks use the QE billions to prop up their own balance sheets – a second round of rescue, but from a problem caused by the regulators.

And this is not the only danger from QE. Even if it works, this money is going to have to be mopped up again or it will cause severe inflation. I think we are already seeing inflationary roots growing in Britain and we will be reliant on the skill of the central bank in picking the right moment to do it: to raise interest rates before the inflation becomes unconquerable except with more pain. With America there is the added problem that this money might well find itself flowing into China, India and Brazil causing overheating there.

QE is medicine with side effects and it fills me with dread. The first dose might have helped us. The second might be fatal.

Obama: Anonymity Knocks

Strange happenings in the Home of the Brave.

First Obama. Most American Presidents are a bit of a compromise, a tendency one way or the other, an unexpectedly strong candidate from a weak party (Clinton’s second term) or an unexpectedly weak candidate from a strong party (both Bushes). But Obama was something else, a firework. I was wrong, in that I thought he would burn out during the primaries, but he kept on and on.

So in this sense I am not surprised at what is happening to him, only at the scale and swiftness of the voters’ response. Some people seemed to be predicting an even worse disaster – losing both the House and the Senate – but that seems to have been expectations management. As it is, Republicans will begin to take over the House committees and it will be harder to get things done. Few would have guessed that Obama would arrive at the next election looking a bit irrelevant, but that is now a possibility. He needs a Bay of Pigs moment.

Of course expectations management is what went wrong for Obama: people expected too much. The crisis was not his fault, indeed the seeds were sown by Clinton, who cancelled the enforced separation of investment and commercial banking (the Glass Steagall Act) and made the mortgage companies underwrite home loans to people who couldn’t pay them back.

But now the Americans have turned against Obama because they resent the difficult times they are gong through on his watch: they expected too much of him and now they are disappointed.

This isn’t an unmitigated disaster for Obama, that would only be if the Republicans started to unpick his healthcare reforms; but it is strong political lesson on how fragile a thing a reputation can be.

03 November, 2010

Ruby again

The latest on Rubygate: Miss Rubacuori, who certainly doesn't seem to be shy, has said she would celebrate her 18th birthday with a cake decorated with 'Bunga-bunga', and criticised the Premier for letting just any tramp anyone into his house 'He can't expect discretion from people he doesn't know'. Love it.

The great man has replied to his critics 'As always, I work without interruption and if occasionally I happen to look a beautiful girl in the face, it's better to like beautiful girls than to be gay', a statement I believe no other western leader would have dared utter.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I wish that other countries could share the Berlusconi experience (the nearest the Brits have is the Duke of Edinburgh). I think the Italians would like to share him out a bit too.

02 November, 2010

Silence is golden

Harry Redknapp, a football manager, is threatening never to speak to the press.

Yes pleeeeease, Harry.

European debt

In my post yesterday I warned that highly indebted countries on the European periphery would find it more difficult to raise money if new plans for restructuring went ahead.

Before the scheme is implemented, just on the announcement of what the Germans wanted, Irish debt became nearly a quarter of a percent more expensive. The Irish now pay more than 7% whereas the Germans pay 2.5%. Just yesterday's rise - as I say, while it is still a vague announcement - meant around another €1.50 a week per family in debt service.

The captive electorate

David Cameron is said to be 'furious' that the Government is being forced to allow prisoners the right to vote.

Wet, wet, wet. He's Prime Minister, for God's sake. If he feels strongly he should do something, and the obvious move is to amend the relevant legislation, the Human Rights Act, withdrawing from this wishy washy world where judges can declare almost anything to be a human right. Chuck the whole damn European Socialist-inspired Declaration of Human Rights in the bin and replace it with British legislation for the British people.

Cameron's excuse for not promising to get rid of the HRA was that it would send the wrong signal to the world. Believe me, Dave, your average African dictator couldn't care less about what goes on in Britain, as long as he can imprison his opponents. And what signal has this daft wish list sent to China? They must be laughing their heads off while they imprison the bloggers and dissidents.

This follows Cameron's craven climbdown on the European budget. At the next election the voters might decide that they would prefer someone with balls.

In the meantime we can reflect on how the candidates are going to try to attract the votes of this new constituency.

01 November, 2010

Silvio and Ruby

The next utterly predictable piece of news is that Silvio Berlusconi has got himself in trouble again. With a girl of course.

This time it is a 17 year old Moroccan belly dancer named Karima Keyek whose stage name, Ruby Rubacuori, means Ruby, stealer of hearts. Rubygate, as it has come to be known, has hit the press fairly large.

There is a number of elements to Rubygate. Initially it was said that Berlusca had consensual sex with the girl, but she now says not: he gave her money, yes, but ‘he acted like a father’ (this is going to be bad for the great man’s reputation: no Italian wants it said that he acted like a father to a girl). Next she describes parties at Berlusca’s villa which ended in orgies (so called bunga-bunga parties, after a joke which I cannot repeat here). At one of these she says she sat next to him and he gave her money. Further, it is alleged that she was arrested in Milan for allegedly stealing 3,000 euros but that Silvio intervened with the police, saying that she was the grand daughter of the president of Egypt (honestly, I'm not making this up), and she was released. This is the one that Bersani and the opposition will try to run with.

It is also said that there is a problem with Ruby’s entry papers (she hasn’t got any).

In ordinary times, the indivdual elements of Rubygate would be eminently forgettable. But in Italy people are feeling the pinch of the recession, and it looks (correctly) as if Berlusconi hasn’t done enough to help them. Together, they constitute a scandal. Fortunately for the PM, the opposition seem incapable of mounting a forensic analysis.

Silvio will restore some of his flagging popularity by intervening in the Naples rubbish issue, but ultimately he will only save himself by looking like a proactive promoter of Italian interests, like a man who has the interests of his people at heart. So far, he hasn’t done nearly enough.

EU negotiations: the usual

Well, the first piece of news was utterly predictable. Great Britain has been shafted again by the European Union. Childe Cameron to the dark tower came and returned with nothing.

In my last post on this subject I said in conclusion ‘I don't want to prejudge the man [Mr Cameron] but his record to date has not been encouraging. Let's see.’. An anonymous contributor commented ‘By all means pre-judge Cameron. You will be right. He will go for a bit of grandstanding ... then roll over and have his tummy tickled by the eurocrats and his new best buddies in the Liberal party.'

It seems likely that the eurocrats asked for a 5.9% increase in their budget knowing that someone (probably Cameron) would have a go and they have settled for 2.9% which is still far too high.

Then Chancellor Merkel said that she didn’t think a change to the Lisbon Treaty would be necessary – Clause 48 permits minor tweaks – so Cameron has nothing to negotiate with.

What has happened with the proposed change is that so far governments have carried the can when a eurozone economy has started to implode. Now bondholders – people who have invested in Greek debt, for example, confident that those hard working Germans would bail them out – will also have to take a hit. Countries will be permitted to reschedule their debt. The result of this will be that peripheral highly-indebted countries will find it harder to raise money, exacerbating the inequality in the EU. It is only fair, I suppose, but the next mini-crisis will see them hit hard, at a time when the strong euro will affect their exports.

If it is bad for the peripheral countries, it is worse for Mr Cameron, who looks as if he has been out-thought and out-manoeuvred by the French and Germans. There is a strong eurosceptic streak in his party and they are not going to be pleased. His best hope is that constitutional courts in the smaller countries decide they need a referendum.

The Veneto and Friuli

I return from a delightful long weekend away in the north of Italy to find the world awash with problems, but of the usual, predictable variety, of which more later.

We went north of Venice and had delightful weather - roof down on the car, aperitifs, if not dinner, outside. We returned when the weather broke, struggling through horizontal rain and impenetrable fog over the Gran Sasso between Bologna and Florence.

Treviso and Udine are a delight, and Trieste, whilst not quite as sad as Jan Morris makes out, seemed underpopulated for its magnificence. This was the Austro Hungarian Empire's warm water port, and it has struggled to find an identity since the First World War.

They eat well in the north, with excellent game at this time of year and wonderful fish and seafood fresh from the Adriatic. And two really great products: some people dine off a plate of warm radicchio and a glass or two of prosecco.

To any Italian speakers confused by the strange accent, imagine speaking with a Northern Irish accent, the Rev. Ian Paisley saying 'Buongiorno, come va?' (not that the old rogue would have spoken a foreign language in public, even if he were able to).

A highly recommended trip.

27 October, 2010

Lisbon 2

Actually it might be Lisbon 3, because who can forget the excellent Lisbon Agenda of 2000, which aimed to make the EU 'the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion', by 2010. Of course by the start of this year the EU had slipped down the international competitiveness list not up. It was the habit of Tony Blair to think you just had to announce the policy - no need actually to do anything about it - and the EU seems to have caught a bad dose of Blairitis.

No, what I am referring to is the possibilty of an amendment to the Lisbon Treaty. The German and French leaders, Merkel and Sarkozy, have met in Deauville (no need to worry about the small countries) and agreed to create a system of penalties for countries which have over-large budget deficits. This requires a change to the Treaty, and that requires unanimity. Which means that Britain has to vote for it.

I think this is a good time to remind everyone, including the man himself, that David Cameron has repeatedly promised to repatriate powers from Europe. This may be the only opportunity he ever has. At present there is talk that he will insist on the EU budget not increasing next year (the Eurocrats have asked for a 6% uplift) but this is nowhere near enough. They would have zero this year and 12% next year.

The first thing Cameron has to do is reinstate Britain's rebate, which is necessary because the design of the Common Agricultural Policy favours countries with small, inefficient farms and we lose out by being efficient. It's a crazy world. Tony Blair allowed the rebate to be greatly reduced in return for, not a promise, but a hint that the agricultural budget would be reviewed.

Next we must withdraw from the Working Time Directive. As we are coming out of recession and desperately need growth it is absurd that the European Union should be able to stop people working overtime. This is simply a means of stopping lazy countries getting uncompetitive - by preventing the others which want to work from doing so.

Last we must have a definite commitment to the end of the insane system of regional subsidy, where countries pay money to Europe and get some back only if they spend it on what the Eurocrats want it spent on. It is a gross infringement of our national sovereignty that we can't decide where our money goes

This, I repeat, will most likely be Cameron's one and only chance to do something about the iniquity of the EU. Suspending the year on year budget increase doesn't even come close to being enough. I don't want to prejudge the man but his record to date has not been encouraging. Let's see.

26 October, 2010

Public Corruption

Transparency International, an international anti-corruption organisation, has published its annual Corruption Perception Index, based on a number of international surveys covering 178 countries. Italy has not done well. 55th in 2008, 63rd last year, it is now 67th, with, amongst European countries, only Romania, Bulgaria and Greece rated lower.

Italy ranks as more corrupt than Rwanda.

Scandinavian countries, New Zealand, Singapore and Canada were at the top of the list, Germany 15th, UK 20th, USA 22nd and France 25th.

Italy's growth and the standard of living of its people are held back by corruption. Unproductive jobs are handed out to the wrong people; useless university professors are kept on into their 70s, denying a decent education to the promising young students; vast amounts of money go missing from public contracts. This is something Berlusconi might have turned his mind to, but hasn't; it is is something the oposition might have turned their minds to, but they haven't either; it is something the people should be rioting in the streets about, but they never know if they might be a beneficiary of the system.

Corruption costs a good 1% in annual growth.

And it will be just as bad next year.

25 October, 2010

Electoral Deception

There is very disturbing news from the Spectator's Coffee House blog and from the surprisingly independent Conservative Home blog to the effect that David Cameron intends, even if he wins the next election, to govern as a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

What this would mean is that the two parties would campaign separately of each other, with different policies, but then after you have voted might decide to adopt some of this party's policies, some of the other's, to govern on a programme which was never put to the electorate. You'll vote, and even if you vote decisively for a Conservative government, the political class will decide what's good for you (or rather for them).

If they cobbled together coalition policies before the vote, and told you about them, that would be OK. But Mr Cameron needs to be reminded continually over the next few years that this course, of deciding on the policies after the vote, is deeply undemocratic.

And may I ask in passsing what is the point of having the Queen as guardian of the constitution if she lets them get away with this kind of electoral deception?

Common naughtiness

A study by the Italian association of matrimonial lawyers suggests that 55% of Italian men betray their wives, whilst 45% of wives betray their husbands.

It seems frightfully high, although I recall that soon after arrival in Italy I was told accusingly that British husbands are the most unfaithful in the world, so Heaven knows what we Brits get up to.

Interestingly, we are told that 60% of infidelities occur in the lunch break. In France, by contrast, the hanky-panky is supposed to take place immediately after work - the famous 'cinq à sept'.

Again strange to our ears, it is men in their fifties who are most likely to betray.

British lunch breaks, at around 40 minutes, are far too short to get past mere flirtation. British 50 year olds are too tired to get past mere flirtation.

It must be going on among the unemployed.

Culture Report

The town of Castellammare di Stabia, on the bay of Naples, is to ban miniskirts, under devolved legislation designed to maintain public order.

The town authorities are going to find this unpopular and embarrassing. Presumably some hard working public servant will be required to measure the young ladies' hemlines.

Equally difficult to maintain are proposed bans on sunbathing and playing football in public places.

You will recall that the town of Furore, just down the coast near Amalfi, this year banned garden gnomes.

What are we coming to?

20 October, 2010

Your money in their hands

The European Parliament has voted for an increase in maternity leave on full pay to 20 weeks.

At present it is 14 weeks. That is to say that now, if you get pregnant, your employer has to pay for more than three months' holiday. Not your government, your employer, which might be struggling and thinking of making other people redundant (not a pregnant woman, of course, that would be illegal). You could get back on your first day and resign, simply trousering the money. The new vote is that this should now be 5 months.

No such conditions are available in the Far East, and that is where the jobs will go. Bad luck you unemployed people.

Of course if you are there among the comfortable restaurants of Brussels, simply collecting a decent salary, looking forward to a fantastic pension, the easiest thing to do is to vote for more nice things without having to consider the costs. This happens because the Euro MPs are not really accountable: in most European countries a party list means that the most important aparatchiks get the seats and get the jobs. Why vote against anything that hands out more money? Just stick to the party. Many people want the same thing for Britain.

We are all of us Europeans in, and in for, a bad recession, where costs need to be cut, things which you might have liked being no longer possible. These Brussels insiders have lost, if they ever had it, any connection  with the outside world.

This is another step in the case for leaving the EU.

aux armes, citoyens!

To British eyes, and I am sure to those of many other nations, the French pensions debacle seems strange. There have now been seven days of strikes and protests against Sarkozy's plan to raise the pensionable age from 60 to 62.

In Britain it has been 65 since the war, at a time when the life expectancy at birth was 65. Now a Frenchman can expect to live to nearly 80.

And France cannot afford its pension system, that is clear. So why all the fuss? What some are saying is that there is a political movement to oppose Sarkozy, and pensions are simply the chosen vehicle. This is in part due to the failure of the left to make any kind of serious opposition, and partly due to the French constitution which gives the French President the sort of powers you expect of an African dictator.

I must say Sarkozy seems a loathesome little man and one can quite understand why the French want rid of him. His most likely opponent at the next election would seem to be Dominic Strauss-Kahn, currently head of the IMF, but the neo-communist Martine Aubry is leader of the Socialists and doesn't look ready to stand aside.

The strikes and demos cannot last until the 2012 election so something has to give. Sixty-one and a half?

Defence Cuts

The whole point of a strategic defence review is that it should cover what we are actualy going to want from our armed services over the medium-term. I should have thought the most obvious criterion was that the public are no longer going to permit one of these insane international frolics like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Accordingly, when the Daily Telegraph wails that Britain can not independently fight a major war again, we should rejoice.

Let's just have minor ones. Or none.

In fact, service personnel will be cut from 175,000 to 158,000. Whereas we sent 45,000 soldiers to Iraq in 2003, we could now only send 30,000. I don't find that too shocking.

We really have to rid ourselves of the sentiment in all this - it is a shame if soldiers lose their jobs, but a lot of people are losing their jobs; it is a shame if we are not an international superpower, but then we were anyway so far behind America that it wasn't really relevant; it is a shame if we can't invade someone on the other side of the world: nor can France, Germany, Italy, Japan or Canada. That's why we belong to NATO, where we have been more than pulling our weight while others haven't.

We'll live.

Those aircraft crriers

I am indebted to Guido for reminding me of this.

It is from some time ago (the carriers now cost much more) so quite prescient

18 October, 2010

Your money in their hands

You will scarcely believe this, but it is true.


All the Satellite Navigation we have at the moment is courtesy of America. The US developed the GPS system which handles everything from the accurate positioning of shipping to getting you home from the restaurant on Friday night. It is given away free, but a more sophisticated system exists which can pinpoint you down to your little toenail; it is used for military purposes.

Some time ago the European Union decided it must have its own GPS, and it is called Galileo. Incidentally it is one of the most disturbing features of the EU recently that it feels it must copy America: President Rumpy goes everywhere in an Obama style motorcade, and we are spending €280 million on a White House style palace for him.

Anyway, Galileo, as you can imagine with a project run by bureaucrats who have never had any connection with the outside world, is running 10 years late and at a cost of €22 billion against its original budget of €2.6 billion. According to Open Europe, ‘The German government has admitted that "All in all, it is assumed, based on the currently available estimates, that the operating costs will exceed direct revenues, even in the long term."’

The project has been abandoned by industry, which sees no future in it, and abandoned by its Chinese partners, who have set up their own system, on the wavelengths which Galileo wanted to use, so Europe will now have to ask China’s permission to establish Galileo. Russia, India and Japan have also set up their own systems.

In fact the only people who want this are the Eurocrats: self-aggrandising functionaries who see no limit to the amount of your money they can spend.