28 February, 2010

UK: The Tories

I have just seen David Cameron's speech to his Spring Conference. If I can find a link to it I shall add it.

I thought it very good

Petty corruption

The case being made against Guido Bertolasi, the Head of the Civil Protection Service in Italy, is that he accepted bribes, financial and sexual, for contracts within his gift. The Civil Protection Service looks after, for example, rehousing the people of l’Aquila after the earthquake there. It is alleged that several other prominent figures were involved and that Achille Toro, the Chief Prosecutor of Rome, had to resign because he tipped off several people of the impending charges.

No one I know is particularly surprised by this, even if Bertolasi is a popular figure nationally.

It is not alleged at the moment that this is organised crime. I maintain what I have stated before that Berlusconi’s government has done more against the various southern mafias than any previous one. Asset seizures have trebled since it took office, and whilst this amounts only to something like 5% of annual revenues of the Cosa Nostra (Sicily), n’Drangheta (Calabria), Camorra (Campania) and Sacra Corona Unita (Puglia) it nevertheless comes out as about €7 billion.

What is alleged against Bertolasi, and there are dozens of similar cases larger and smaller going on in Italy at the moment, is a result of the culture of petty corruption. If you are in a position where you can award government contracts, or offer jobs to the raccomandati it is assumed that you can be bribed and firms bidding for contracts think that the quality and nature of the bribe is as important as the quality and nature of the services they are offering in their bid. Most Italians will shrug their shoulders and say ‘Everyone is doing it’.

Which brings us to Greece, which is even worse than Italy in this respect. The government may hit against big corruption, as Berlusconi has done against the 4 mafias, but it is hard to get to grips with the petty stuff which, totalled up, amounts to billion upon billion. A Greek doctor reported that every year a tax inspector would come to see him promising, for €1,000, not to investigate his affairs. And this is not an isolated case. Most professional people don’t pay anything like the taxes they should, and most government contracts are inflated 10-20% to cover backhanders.

If the tax inspector were fired, the unions would be up in arms, just as they are in Italy if anyone has a go at the public servants who have two jobs and get someone to clock in for them. But what alternative is there? What investor is going to buy Greek or Italian bonds if they know a large part of the money is being frittered away?

Identifying and firing the guilty is going to be difficult and go against the culture, but a start must be made and that, I think, is it.

PS I forecast a while back that David Mills’ case would be eliminated by the Statute of Limitations, and so it has proved. Now perhaps that it is no longer sub judice, the British can hold an investigation as to whether his wife, Tessa Jowell, then a cabinet minister, knew what she was doing when she mortgaged the family home then repaid the mortgage soon after, thereby washing the money. And this was not the first time she had done it. Well?

27 February, 2010

Let battle commence

I have always said of the absence of Switzerland in any of the planet’s wars that you don’t rob your own bank.

We now learn that Colonel Gaddafi withdrew his money from the banks before declaring war on Switzerland, leaving open, of course, the possibility of an invasion. His reason is officially the Swiss vote to ban the erection of any more minarets, but some say it is because they arrested one of his sons, interestingly named Hannibal, for beating up a servant.

If Gaddafi does invade Switzerland it will provide some colour to an otherwise tedious political story and in my view be greatly to the benefit both nations. I hope his first move will be to colonise the Ticino, the Italianised canton, the principal town of which is Lugano. Happier and less judgmental, the Ticinese are philosophically far removed from the dour Swiss Germans of Basel and Zurich. Pitching his tent among the lakeside dwellings near Locarno, here he would find acceptance of his almost industrial requirement for female company, his interminable speeches and his absurd uniforms.

And he could just pop across the border to Piemonte to see his mate Silvio, and stock up on a few more women.

Yes; a consummation, as the poet said, devoutly to be wished.


Here in the rich, modern western world, we tend to forget our history pretty quickly. With the exception of Churchill our collective political memory scarcely stretches as far back as Heath, much less Atlee or Balfour. In Turkey, however, the ghost of one of the early 20th century’s truly great figures still walks the corridors of power and informs the actions of the rulers. Every office, not just the Government ones, contains a picture of him; no criticism is heard of him, and indeed it is doubtful if anything untoward is known about him. It is as if a god had walked the earth.

In the early years of the 20th century the Ottoman Empire was imploding under its social contradictions and its casual, caste-entitlement philosophy. In the First World War, adhering to a treaty to fight with Germany, it performed weakly: its outdated military, both in terms of equipment and lack of esprit de corps, crumbled in front of the modern Western armies.

Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk, had graduated from the military academy in 1905 and became the Ottoman Army’s most successful general, the only one undefeated in the First World War. He commanded at Gallipoli, defeating the Allied troops. He became the first leader of the Turkish Republican Party and it is not too much to say that he founded Turkey, which was the rump of the Ottoman Empire after everyone had chipped off a bit.

Ataturk’s primary consideration, having seen the outdatedness of the forces and indeed the whole Ottoman civilisation, was to modernise. His vision for Turkey was as a modern, educated, secular state, and that effectively became Turkey’s constitution. The army, which worshipped Ataturk, was sworn to uphold it and this went well (the pace of modernisation was slower than Ataturk might have wished, but the direction was the same) until the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has Muslim leanings.

And that is what this whole crisis in Turkey is about. It is not an attempted coup for profit, it is not for democracy (Erdogan was properly elected) it is about defending the legacy of Ataturk. It is, unfortunately, not going to help Turkey’s application to join the European Union. Countries such as France, who fear Turkish access to their markets because of the low wage rates and high quality agriculture, now have an excuse: the ructions of the last week have highlighted the Islamist leanings of the government and the strength of the army.

My own view of Turkey and Europe is the opposite: that the Turks would be mad to join the EU, but Europe should be trying desperately to get them in. It would be Europe’s own little piece of Islam, which would be politically valuable, the well trained Turkish military would bolster the WEA (the proposal for a European Army) and Turkey would be our own China, making cheap goods for European markets.

I wonder now whether it will ever happen.

Pope for the day

The Pope, we learn, has been invited to deliver Radio 4's Thought for the Day on his forthcoming visit to Britain.

I haven't heard the programme for some years but I remember Rabbi Lionel Blue, who was a regular, always used to finish off with a little joke.

I am not sure this would be the correct course for His Holiness, however. You know what they say about a German joke: it's no laughing matter.

Pompey the poor

My grandfather, who worked in the dockyards, was a regular at Fratton Park, Portsmouth’s football ground. I wish I could say, like the moist eyed Tony Blair, that he had taken me to see some of the football greats at Pompey, but in fact none of them were playing there and he didn’t want a child accompanying him to a man’s event. As a result football is rather a closed book to me; except for the financing, which is a piece of continuing fascination.

Portsmouth has gone into administration today and I think history will say that its demise is a piece of singular incompetence. Yet the news showed bewildered fans wandering around saying that football seemed to be more a matter of money than social cohesion. Indeedy doody. The money men are in, and the social cohesion chaps are talking on local radio.

One morning in Borneo, watching the sun rise over the Kuching river (one of the world’s ‘must sees’ by the way) I had myself rowed out to an island in the middle of the stream. Alighting from the boat the first thing I saw was a Manchester United merchandising trolley for selling T-shirts and caps and so on. The Manchester United brand is strong internationally. No one on that island, or in the whole of Kuching, would have heard of Portsmouth.

When Manchester United was being bought there were demonstrations saying ‘Man Utd is not for sale’, which of course it was, being quoted on the stockmarket. But all the supporters clubbing together could have bought it, outbidding the Glazer family, and we would have had a sort of co-operative. I am certain that this is the solution for Pompey.

The BBC tried to explain football’s financing problem in terms of debt (and football clubs have a lot) in relation to assets. This is meaningless. The important ratio is debt to cashflow. The Americans who bought Manchester United and filled it with debt did it on the basis that all these Indonesians, Chinese and Japanese are buying Manchester United shirts. The cashflow is strong and they borrowed against it. A similar cachet exists with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur. Not with Manchester City (is that the second team?), Aston Villa, or, of course Portsmouth.

Football suddenly became a billion pound industry without getting billion pound managers to run it. It is the same set of self satisfied uneducated working class slobs who manage the Football Association as did 50 years ago. The twenty top teams get far too much money and the remainder get far too little. Football cannot expect its outdated business plan to be rescued by billionaires. It happens from time to time but there really aren’t enough.

The only answer is for the fans to own the teams. That is what should have happened with Manchester Utd, but it seemed too much money. It could certainly happen with Portsmouth, which can’t now be worth very much, and would transform the whole industry. Why not pay the players’ bonuses with shares, as happens in the City? Start training youngsters instead of buying expensive players from abroad? Pay the manager and his staff on a purely performance basis?

Football is in crisis. It needs some new thinking. More than anything else it needs some leaders who are open to new thinking. Don't hold your breath, though.

26 February, 2010

Election fever?

The blogophere is alive with rumours that an election is about to be called. There are stories that the BBC political team have had their leave cancelled....

24 February, 2010


Something you may not know about Toyota is that the founding family is called Toyoda. The car company was given the different spelling because the number of strokes in Japanese script for a 't' was a luckier number than that for a 'd' .

Time to change it again, think.

St Sheila


Had me worried for a bit when I heard they were canonising an Australian nun.

But it's OK. It turns out she was excommunicated in 1871 for insubordination.

Probably a bit of drunk and disorderly as well.


I am a great fan of the headline writer's art and one of the best I have seen this year is in today's Telegraph: 'Smart salad dressing could save Venice'.

It involves mixing oil and water to turn carbon dioxide into limestone and if true it could...well, it could show how little I understand about chemistry.

You can read it here.

22 February, 2010


The continuing bad weather in Britain might have an interesting effect. Bad weather tends to lower production - people don't make it into work, logistics get fouled up - and it seems not unlikely that this might tip the economy back into negative growth for the first quarter. The announcement of the figures should be in the third week in April. Gordon might want to go to the country before the news comes out.

April 1st, which is what I would favour, is both Maundy Thursday and the Feast of All Fools, and it seems that even our accident prone Prime Minister might wish to avoid that. But April 8th?

You can still get decent odds at Ladbrokes

Colin Firth

Congratulations to Colin Firth on his BAFTA award.

Firth is a middle aged Englishman living in Umbria. That's all I can think of at the moment that we have in common.

21 February, 2010

Greeks bearing debts

Mr Papandreou, the Greek Prime Minister, has demanded that the European Union (not just the Eurozone, you'll notice, but Britain as well) publish details of how it will bail out Greece 'should the need arise' while insisting they don't actually need it - something just for the markets. But Papandreou is on the mild mannered side of the argument.

"How does Germany have the cheek to denounce us over our finances when it has still not paid compensation for Greece's war victims?" Thus Margaritis Tzimas, of the conservative New Democracy party, in a recent speech. "There are still Greeks weeping for their lost brothers."

Now if you were a hard working German, who in recent years had foregone payrises in the interests of keeping the German economy sound, would you think (a) He's right, you know. It is our duty to bail out our Greek brothers; or (b) Isn't it about time these idle shysters were left to fend for themselves ?

The Winter Olympics

Until a couple of days ago I thought a luger was a type of pistol and Women's Skeleton was what you might see in one of these new scanners at the airport.

What doesn't seem right about it all is that the sports played in the Summer Olympics - running, jumping and that silly one where girls in the swimming pool all stick their legs out of the water at the same time (a clear case of gender discrimination) - these sports can be played equally well in the cold, snowy countries, whereas you can't luge, if that is the verb, in North Africa.

What we need is some sports which can only be done in hot countries, to even up the balance. Formation sunbathing would be my choice.

19 February, 2010

Burning bright

Actually I don't want Tiger Woods to apologise to me. No need, really. The whole thing was a bit of mildly interesting chaff, some tittilation in the cheap press, nothing more. I didn't suffer; in fact I was mildly amused. This is the stuff of Roman folklore, that the Gods have the same weaknesses as us.

Traducing the image (of a clean cut young boy) he had sold to the media and the sponsorship companies is something he could have apologised for quietly. But I don't feel let down by that, either. I know a little it about the publicity machine and it has its ups and downs. Look at Britney Spears.

The only apology necessary should be to his wife, and that in private.

When all is said and done, Tioger Woods is wonderful golfer and he will return to golf. As soon as he wins his first tournament the press will forget about his indiscretions. Life is like that.

A billion thanks

Thanks to the Adam Smith Institute for this:

A billion is a hard number so let's get some perspective. A billion seconds ago it was 1959. A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive. A billion hours ago was the Stone Age. A billion days ago no-one walked on the earth on two feet. A billion Pounds ago was only 13 hours and 12 minutes... - at the rate our government is spending it. Thanks Gordon!

17 February, 2010

The Law and the busybodies

Today marks the anniversary of the end, in 1933, of Prohibition in the United States.

Prohibition seems daft now, but the anniversary is significant for a number of reasons. The first is that this was not just a law, it was a part of the Constitution. People who want a constitution in the UK (of course we already have one, I mean people who want a codified model you can buy in newsagents), forget that you can put lots of silly stuff into a constitution (and I bet we would) and then change it, as the Americans did an astonishing fourteen years later. Constitutional amendments are only different from ordinary laws in that you need a bigger majority in the legislature to enact or amend them.

The second reason all this is worth thinking about is that, following the ridicule with which this sort of thing is now viewed, the busybodies (and what must they have been like in 1919 to enact this!) are using a different method to get their way. Look at smoking: first they tax it, so heavily that it is a burden on the poor, not the rich; then they come up with a lot of bogus statistics about passive smoking (and this is an episode for which Science should hang its head in shame) to ban it from stations, public buildings and so on. They are passing the Prohibition Amendment (it was called at the time ‘The Noble Experiment’!) by stealth.

Who can doubt that what has happened to cigarettes will happen to alcohol unless the busybodies are stopped?

Laws should be made by the people, working upwards through their representatives, not by the great and good looking down on the people, knowing what is best for them.

13 February, 2010

The Euro

I forecast that this year the attention of the currency markets would focus on the eurozone and how it has. The single currency has lost 5% of its value against the dollar this year, which is not yet seven weeks old.

There are two aspects to this which merit attention. The first is, shall we say, the technical argument. The European model, with its regulated labour markets and strong welfare, tends to bounce along without changing much, which is what you want in good times but not when emerging from a serious recession. The lesser regulated American model, by contrast, if not roaring out of recession, is at least pulling strongly. The peripheral European economies are waiting for the German consumer to do something, but he is cautious and not spending. The euro will tend to fall against the dollar just for being the slower runner in the race.

The second aspect is a discussion of the very existence of the euro, and it is this which has made Greece, a minnow at 3% of Eurozone output, so important. A single currency among sovereign states means that monetary policy - the interest rate - is controlled in Frankfurt, but fiscal policy - government spending - is a matter for the individual nations. Greece, together with several others, have overspent. The 3% deficit limit is a joke when not even France and Germany can keep to it, so to a Mediterranean country this was simply carte blanche. Someone would bail them out eventually.

Romano Prodi once said that the first crisis the eurozone faced should be seen as an opportunity. What he meant was that they could seize the moment to complete the European unity project, and that means complete economic union. The guys at the centre now have this dilemma: if they try to complete monetary and fiscal union now - Frankfurt telling Athens how much it can spend on welfare next year, and Italy whether it can afford its bridge to Sicily - the members of the eurozone might see that as an attack on their independence (it would indeed be exactly that). But even then, with the olive belt agreeing to cede fiscal independence, there would loom the problem of the lack of competitiveness in these areas. They would continue to get steadily poorer relative to Germany and in five years they would have to be bailed out with massive regional spending. And no hard working German wants to be on the hook for that.

The other horn of the dilemma is that if they don't limit Mediterranean profligacy, the euro quite simply cannot survive. The poorer countries will collapse under the weight of their ever rising debt.

So the chaps in Frankfurt and Brussels are left hoping that Greece and the rest will cut their deficits willingly. But no one has any experience of cutting: since the war governments have got their fingers into more and more pies, not fewer; elections have always been about who would spend more, not less. Already Greece is on strike and they haven't even heard, much less felt, the half of what they are going to have to go through. Can the Greek government pull it off? Can they reduce people's living standards and benefits in order to stay in the currency union? Or would that make them unelectable?

It seems to me that Democracy has faced the project down. Papandreou now knows that the German electors won't allow Merkel to open her chequbook, but the Greek voters won't allow him to close his.

It is on this that the future of the euro depends. If it were me, I'd get ready to sling five of them out. But there again I would have addressed this problem ten years ago.

12 February, 2010

The tortured mind

The subject of torture has raised its ugly head again. The British Secret Service (a name I always find so old fashioned) is accused of being complicit in the torture by the Americans of Binyam Mohammed.

This morning Lord Harries (the former Bishop of Oxford) tried to explain on radio why torture should be banned. It was, he said, because it took us down to their level, it made us do things which were simply not the sort of things which would be done by the type of society we wanted to be (by which he means the sort of society he wants us to be).

I must say, I don’t think the British public are with the bien pensants on this one. I think most of us – if we get the signatures can we have a referendum, Mr.Cameron? – think that if police have in custody a suspect who, they seriously believe, knows details of a terrorist attack which could cost hundreds of lives, they want him tortured until he spills the beans. I know this is difficult. Perhaps a variety of exceptional methods of interrogation (the euphemism sounds lots better than 'torture' which is reminiscent of the Inquisition) could be authorised by a High Court Judge, the Security Services being scrutinised afterwards to make sure it was targeted rather than random. I'm in two minds about it, to be honest, but I want to discuss it rather than being lectured by the great and good.

The other thing the public don’t much like is ‘the sort of society we are’ being determined by these self-appointed arbiters of morality, such as the liberal leftie Harries. We ordinary people might decide that depriving a subject of sleep is a vastly different moral transgression to blowing up a busload of innocent people. We might in fact decide that rather than being the sort of cosy, smug society Harries would like, we are in fact a collection of vindictive torturers. Whatever we decide, I don’t believe lefty Harries is representative of us.

I, for example, think Harries should be tortured until he explains why he nearly destroyed the Church of England by appointing an openly gay priest (who later had to resign after the damage was done) as Bishop of Reading. He knew it could cause a schism so why did he do it? Why? Where’s my rubber truncheon?

09 February, 2010

Spring springing?

At this time of year I am often looking out for the first signs of Spring, so far, of course, without luck. But I wondered when it officially begins. Most Italians would say that February is winter, March is Spring. So do we celebrate it on 1st March?

Some people go by the solstices and equinoxes. This would mean that Spring ran from 21st March to 21st June but that seems a little late. Indeed these are supposed to be the mid point of the season. But that would mean Spring began on about 4th February, which seems a little early.

St Valentine’s Day, which was chosen for when birds mate? When you see some particular flora – for example almond blossom?

Anyhow, it’s not yet.

06 February, 2010

Stormont Shocker

With all the delicate negotiations in Northern Ireland at the moment I was a little taken aback to read the headline ‘Trimble elated at Ireland call-up’.

The Six nations rugby, in which Andrew Trimble (and not David, the former Ulster Unionist) will turn out for Ireland against Italy this afternoon, is a welcome break from politics, and probably more important.

MPs' expenses

I have written little on the parliamentary expenses scandal, in part because it just seems a tawdry product of the age we live in. Partly, also, there is some reason behind what is going on. Successive governments have refused pay rises to the legislators so that they might all appear to be suffering with us in the economic mire they have caused. Mrs Thatcher, I seem to remember, linked an MP’s pay to the salary of a senior civil servant and they should have stuck with that no matter how unjustified it sometimes seems (how many times have you remarked that things are gong so well in our country that the MPs deserve a pay rise? Nor have I.)

The upshot of this was a tacit agreement that they could recoup some of their losses with some lavish expenses. That they over played their hand is clear, but there is at least some reason behind it.

The four parliamentarians (three Labour MPs and a Conservative peer) who have had their details referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions are not in this category. There is evidence (they have not been found guilty yet, except by the newspapers) of clear fraud. One of them, for example, seems to have claimed the rental for a property he himself owned; two others are accused of faking invoices.

It is quite unacceptable that these men might be allowed to claim parliamentary privilege from prosecution. The rule of parliamentary privilege was put in place to protect free speech: you could not sue an MP for defamation if he spoke the words in the House, and so he could be fearless in his allegations. It has nothing to do with criminal activity.

The public wants a scalp or two. Let’s get this over with – properly, without compromise or evasion of responsibility – and move on.

03 February, 2010


I really don't know what is happening to the Tory Party. Cameron and Osborne seem to have lost their nerve and there doesn't seem to be anyone else they can allow out except on a lead.

Having been savaged by Lord Mandelson recently, Osborne yesterday made a speech on the economy almost completely without content. It turns out they have identified £1 billion of savings. They need to find £80 billion, and quickly.

The worst of it is they have accepted, or allowed to go unchallenged, Labour's dictum that you mustn't cut expenditure too quickly or you will ruin the recovery. This is nonsense. Firstly it will take a while to get the cuts through - the entire civil service will be resisting, not to mention all the quangos and lobby groups. Secondly it is not expenditure cuts which might dampen the recovery but a monetary contraction. So if you made £40 billion of cuts and felt the economy was still stuttering, you would just have to release the money back in some positive way, like cutting business taxes or national insurance, either of which would have a positive effect on employment.

But you have to make the cuts. Reducing the size of the State is a good thing, Mr Osborne. You're supposed to be a Conservative, remember?

02 February, 2010

F.A. to do with them

It was eleven years ago today that Glen Hoddle was sacked as England’s football manager. You may recall that Hoddle had some highly publicised religious views which included a belief in reincarnation. He said in an interview with the Times that he believed disabled people were being punished for their sins in a previous life.

Notwithstanding the fact that more people in the world believe this than watch English football, Hoddle was criticised by many, and in particular Tony Blair, the People’s Prime Minister, said he did not believe Hoddle could stay in his job after what he had said. Rather than being outraged that a public servant should poke his nose into what was clearly a private matter, the tabloid press called for Hoddle's head and he lost his job, a piece of religious persecution redolent of the counter reformation.

Now we have the Sports Minister, Gerry Sutcliffe (no, I’d never heard of him either) suggesting that John Terry, the England captain, cannot stay in his job because he has had an affair with a team mate’s girlfriend and paid for her to have an abortion (whatever you think about abortion I suppose there may be a certain old world courtesy in offering to pay).

What I want to know is why the State is getting involved in this. If I were interested in football I should want as captain the best man for the job, even if he had fathered dozens of illegitimate children with everyone from the Spice Girls to the Little Sisters of Mercy.

Why have we got a sports minister, anyway? There isn’t a reading minister or a listening to music minister.

Gordon Brown should tell Mr Sutcliffe to stick to his brief, which is squandering the taxpayer’s money on the absurd Olympics jamboree.

01 February, 2010

He doesn't deserve this

David Cameron, leader of the UK’s Conservative Party, seems to have lost the plot. He said we should have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, then said that if it were passed without a referendum he would ‘not let matters rest’ (‘I will do such things – what they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth’). Then he admitted he would do nothing.

Recently he has made a bit of a name for himself saying that there must be immediate cuts to reduce the deficit. Then, at Davos the other day, he said that there didn’t have to be massive tax cuts.....

Cameron seems to be inviting the electorate to replace one indecisive ditherer with another. He looks such a prat – wait until you hear Gordon Brown grind him into the dust for the third week running on Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday – that I fear there is no hope.

But he doesn’t deserve this. Peter Mandelson has been comparing him to Des O’Connor.

This is an unacceptable level of slander, and Mandelson must apologise or Cameron must consult his lawyers.

I said the election was hotting up but I hadn’t realised it had got this bad.