30 April, 2010

Leadership debates

This picture appeared in a couple of today's papers.

Just what is going on?

I don't know whether to ask why Mr Cameron isn't dancing or why the other two are

29 April, 2010

Democracy in action

More on a hung parliament, this time from the Ukraine

Homosexuality in Politics

‘Don’t go there’ is what most people would say, but I am going to.

Philip Lardner, the Conservative candidate for North Ayrshire and Arran, has been suspended, in the middle of the election campaign, for saying that homosexuality was ‘not normal behaviour’. In fact he wrote on his website ‘I will support the right of parents and teachers to refuse to have their children taught that homosexuality is normal behaviour or an equal lifestyle choice to traditional marriage.’

Conservative Party policy is to give a tax break to ‘traditional marriage’, which will not include people who live together or homosexual couples so they must think it different, that is to say ‘not an equal lifestyle choice’, surely?

Here is Ian Dale, openly gay Conservative blogger: “He apparently thinks homosexuality isn't 'normal'. It is in fact quite normal. It's just not the 'norm'.”

Normal: Constituting, conforming to, not deviating or differing from, the common type or standard; regular, usual (OED)

Of course homosexuality isn’t normal. That doesn’t make it wrong, or undesirable or worthy of condemnation. It means it is ‘differing from the common type or standard’.

The Conservative Education policy encourages people to start their own schools. What would happen if I started a school which did not teach that homosexuality was normal behaviour – not taught the kiddies to discriminate, which would be illegal, but which simply did not teach that it was normal. In fact I was never taught that it was normal. I was never taught anything about it at all, which seems like a good idea for the modern school.

Of course it was an idiot thing to say in the middle of an election campaign and there is a case for suspending Mr Lardner on grounds of low IQ, but he seems to have been following Conservative policy, no more, no less.

So, what are we to make of all this?

Don’t ask me.

The Agencies and the Olive Belt

Germany has, almost too late, reiterated that there will be a rescue for Greece, and that it will last for three years, totalling some €135 billion. But Mrs Merkel is still vague about the terms, and this will not please the markets.

However in the meantime there has been a downgrading of the debt of Portugal and Spain.

I have spoken of the ratings agencies before, but it is worthwhile recalling the power they have. The main ones, who effectively control the markets are Standard & Poor’s (S&P), Moody’s and Fitch. They rate each debt instrument as it comes out and their sovereign debt departments regularly re-rate countries’ debt; so if a bank is organising a loan, say, for Spain the agency will check that it is in the approved format (ie no surprises) and allot the rating for short term – up to two years – medium term 5-10 years etc. This is aimed as a guidance for the investors who hold the debt. Obviously the worse the rating the more a country has to pay; for debt already issued the price goes down, say from par to 95 pushing the yield up. Portuguese debt currently yields 3.3% more than German.

As said, one of the main problems is that the banks which pay for the ratings. If Fitch isn’t prepared to give the rating the bank wants, it can just use Standard & Poor’s or Moody’s.

One of the game changers in all this was Iceland, a default the agencies didn’t see coming. It may be that the olive belt countries in Europe are suffering for this now: the agencies don’t want to make the same mistake again and so are downgrading frantically. And it’s OK because nobody is organising loans for Greece right now (except Mrs Merkel) so there’s no money in keeping them high.

The ratings are slightly different with each agency but to take S&P, there are ten levels of investment grade debt. Britain is at the top (just) with AAA. Second is AA+. Spain has been downgraded to AA which is the third level. Greece has now achieved junk bond status at BB+ which is the eleventh level and means the bonds cannot be held by insurance companies, investment trusts etc.

Perhaps like the rest of the financial world, the agencies err on the side of risk taking, then err on the side of caution. But Portugal, Spain, Greece, Italy, Ireland, the Baltics and the former Soviet block are at their mercy right now

28 April, 2010

Vote in Buckingham

Being a non resident I am unable to give my old pal Nigel Farage any money, but perhaps you can.

I am however pleased to be able to post this

UK Elections 12: Gillian Duffy

I am not a supporter of Grodon Brown but actually I rather hope this story isn't going much further.

Gordon Brown had decided that to beef up his campaign he had to get out amongst real people and not have such stage managed performances. This of course carries with it some risk. I must admit I wouldn't have done an unscripted gig in Rochdale.

Mrs Duffy had a bit of a go at the Prime Minister; she doesn't much like immigrants or national debt, of both of which he has increased numbers dramatically, but they seemed to leave on amical terms. Concorde (have you noticed how the nose cone goes up and down?) then said, while still wearing his radio mike, 'That was a disaster... that bigoted woman'.

The media are like a puppy that has got hold of your trouser bottoms. I turned on BBC 24hr news at midday UK time and by the time we got through the World at One had heard the clip, now digitally enhanced, six or seven times.

Actually, confronted with such a person, my own language would have been far worse, but I don't think we have seen the end of this. I'm almost sorry for Concorde.


Rumpy speaks!

From the FT:

"Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, on Wednesday insisted that there was "no question" of a restructuring of Greece's debt"

Let's see

Fill up on the Pope!

As petrol reaches €1.43 a litre in Italy (£1.24) Romans have noticed that in the Vatican City, which doesn't charge petrol duty or VAT, it is only €1, a saving of 30%.
But you need a special card to get it.

The Vatican garage is doing great business as people try to find a relative or friend amongst the 546 citizens and 1,800 employees to help them fill up.

27 April, 2010

Ghost MEPs: pay, pay, pay

The interesting tale reaches us of the Ghost Members of the European Parliament. The Lisbon Treaty provided for more MEPs (can't have enough, can you?) as from 2014. Spain will get four new seats; Austria, France and Sweden will get two more; Bulgaria, Italy, Latvia, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia and the UK one more each. Germany will lose three.

As from 2014.

But hear this: the new ones can come in immediately, unable to vote but collecting their salaries, attendance allowances, travel perks etc whilst the outgoing three stay on too, so as not to upset their pensions.

Not a bad job, all that money and no resposibilities. You could carry on, zooming round Europe on Business class flights, collecting four years of a decent salary, probably half a million over the period, doing no work, then decide not to stand come the 2014 elections. Yes please!

And France has fiddled the rules so that their two aren't elected by universal suffrage, as is required in the Treaty. In fact not elected at all, just mates of M. le President. Merci, monsieur.

I am sorry to bang on about it but this is just another example of the political class running things and feathering their own nests at our expense. We want less of this, not more.

26 April, 2010

Belgian PM resigns shock

In fact it's not really a shock at all. It's the third time he has resigned since July 2008. Belgium recently went for three months without a government.

Yves Leterme, you recall, is the French speaking Prime Minister who couldn't sing the Belgian National Anthem, in fact didn't even know what it was, believing it to be the Marseillaise.

Belgium is a country created by the British in the 19th century to serve a particular purpose. That purpose has expired. I think everybody knows what the solution is, except the Belgians.

Belgium's stint as the European Presidency begins on 1st July. It is good news for everyone who hopes nothing further will take place on the European stage to make a nonsense of our democracy. Perhaps we could have Cyprus after that.

Greece and the euro 2

There’s an old story of a man who asks a merchant banker for a loan of £1 million. The banker says ‘No, but I’ll do something even better for you. We’ll walk down the street together with my hand on your shoulder, chatting happily so everyone can see.’

I’m rather beginning to think that this is the story of the Greek bail out, with Mrs Merkel in the place of the banker.

It looks as if there never were any bailout monies, just some soothing talk. Otherwise why aren’t they available yet? They’ve had plenty of time.

But this would in turn mean a couple of interesting things. Mr. Papandreou, the Prime Minister, would have been told that there was no actual money to help him, just the hand on the shoulder, and therefore his publicly asking to draw down the first tranche, which came as a surprise to everyone, means he was calling their bluff. Bold.

But it also means that things are worse than we were led to believe. Angela Merkel certainly wouldn’t have wanted even to be seen talking about it until after the elections in North Rhine-Westphalia on 9th May. Papandreou obviously couldn’t wait that long (it is less than a fortnight away).

There is also some interesting talk in the financial press to the effect that the amount required is €80 billion, not the €45 billion promised by the IMF and the Eurozone; that any aid from Europe would only be for one year (which means the crisis is merely staved off for a bit); and that the Germans might offer something (now their bluff has been called) but it would only be if it ranked above all other creditors (ie was repaid first), which means all the holders of ordinary Greek Government debt would have to agree to subordinate their claims.

Which they will only do with a gun pointing at their head.

Very messy indeed

25 April, 2010

UK Elections 11: PR and democracy

Listening to the BBC’s ‘Any Questions’ with a hopelessly biased audience (they cheered Labour Minister Jack Straw when he criticised the Conservatives for putting a limit on immigration and cheered him when he said immigration had gone down under the Labour administration – now that is what I call even handed) the subject of Proportional Representation came up, with a question on whether the parties supported ‘a fair voting system’. Someone replied that after the War the British Government had imposed it on Germany (implication: so it must be all right).

I thought this rather gave the game away. The system was imposed on Germany because it almost always fails to supply strong government, something which at the time we naturally didn’t want in Germany.

But the PR system is dangerously flawed, from a democratic perspective. You voted, say LibDem because you liked their policy on Europe. Or you voted Conservative because you liked their policy on schools. But in the coalition negotiations, which take place after you have voted, those policies disappear, one in return for the other. You can imagine the weasels in their herbal tea-filled rooms negotiating away, policy after policy, deciding on what’s best for them (not you), how much more of your money should buy a block of votes from another party just to keep the same weasels in power. You won't have a say: you might not vote again for five years. So of course the parties don't rule out a coalition.

This is real power: being able to decide on the future of the country without having to suffer the inconvenience of referring to the electorate.

Proportional Representation is a system whereby you, the electorate, hand over your choice to the political class, saying ‘decide for me’.

And it is not just anti-democratic; it breeds corruption. The pork barrel political corruption of the likes of ‘we could reverse our policy on nuclear weapons provided the submarines are built in my constituency’ and also the financial corruption.

Speaking of Germany, we should remember the story of Helmut Kohl. He had been caught with his hand in the till. Something like €300 million were discovered in a Swiss Bank account, proceeds of a deal selling tanks to Saudi Arabia and some murky oil licences with France. Money siphoned off to his political party from corruption.

Kohl was such a senior member of the political class that he declined even to discuss, much less deny, the accusations. It was not for the little people to criticise Helmut.

The constituency electorate, rightly, voted him out. But when they woke up again the following morning he was still an MP, put in by the party list system, whereby you vote for the party and they decide who gets into parliament.

This party list system occurs under the AV+ and the STV systems, both of which the Liberal Democrats endorse and might insist on for their co-operation after you have voted.

That is real power: retaining your seat in parliament, even when the voters have opted to get rid of you, sticking up two fingers to the little people.

Under PR, you could have another election with a different result and still find the same people running the country. That often happens in Germany and Italy.

If you want democracy, if you want your vote to count for something and not just be a bargaining counter for the political class, steer well clear of PR. Or hung parliaments.

24 April, 2010

Ratings Agencies

In a post entitled The Blame Game eighteen months ago I said that the ratings agencies should take some of the blame for the financial crisis.

Now the US Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has agreed. Its chairman Carl Levin has said

"By first instilling unwarranted confidence in high risk securities and then failing to downgrade them in a responsible manner, the credit rating agencies share blame for the massive economic damage that followed"

Better late than never, you might think, but I believe this may be significant. The practice at the moment is that the inventors of the security or derivative (the banks) pay the fees of the people who assess it: if they refuse to go along with what the banks want they could lose business.

We must find a different way of doing this before the whole thing starts up again (and it will, trust me). We wouldn't allow film makers to control the film rating agency; perhaps Wall St and the City have something to learn from Hollywood.

23 April, 2010

Name that volcano!

Be amazed as this blog offers you without charge an Australian Al-Jazeera anchorman with volcanic hair and an Icelandic ukulele playing lexicologist who can't sing

A time for Patriotism

Haiku for 21st/23rd April

The Queen’s birthday
Then patronal saint
England ever strong and proud

22 April, 2010

Corruption in sport

It has been said that when a great man dies we are all diminished.

This is not, however, the case with Juan Antonio Samaranch, who died yesterday.

For over 20 years Samaranch headed the international Olympic committee, and turned the games from a contest of athletes into the tawdry commercial spectacle it is today.

And as the IOC collected the dollars Samaranch made sure that its members, himself in particular, became rich.

Years ago when I controlled the digital rights to a (very) minor sport a man in London told me that if I wanted it to become an Olympic event he could give me a number in South America to telephone and I would be told the amount I needed to deposit and the account number. This dosh would be on top of the bribes they received from cities wanting to host the Olympics.

The only way to stop this appalling graft is to dismantle the IOC and hold the Games every year in the same place.

Greece needs a financial boost.

Oh Dear

Several political commentators have declared this the worst interview given by a party leader in an election campaign ever. Unfortunately for me this is the party whose main policy, and several others, I support.

Pearson is a kindly old soul, from the Harold McMillan school of politics (‘Prime Minister, is there anything else you would like to tell the country?’ ‘No’) but someone in UKIP Head Office needs to tell him that in 21st century Britain the response ‘I haven’t come here to deal with the minutiae of the manifesto’ is, shall we say, sub-optimal.

21 April, 2010

How to throw an egg

The first egg of the UK election campaign has been thrown, at David Cameron, the Conservative leader. It hit him on the shoulder.


When throwing an egg don’t try the side-arm, sliding technique as you might with a cricket ball. An egg is a peculiar shape and as it turns in the air will swerve to one side or another. Put the egg in your hand lengthways across the fingers and hold the forearm vertical. As you straighten your arm in the throw impart some backspin to the egg which will act like a gyroscope keeping the egg steady in its flight.

Aim for the politician’s ear. If it hits a padded shoulder the egg will not break.

White eggs have softer shells than brown ones.

The things you have to teach people these days. I blame the parents.

UK elections 10: a hung parliament

The astonishing success of the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg in the Leaders' Debate has renewed speculation of a hung parliament.

In the Nixon / JFK debate of which I posted a clip, it was said that people who heard it on the radio thought Nixon had won, whereas people who watched it on the television thought JFK had won. Being abroad, I was only abe to hear the UK debate on the radio and I thought it was fairly even, though a lot more argumentative than we had been led to believe. I was quite surprised to hear that Nick Clegg had emerged the winner.

Incidentally I think a bit of scrapping is good for democracy, and this will presumably continue in the next debate, on Thursday, which is on Foreign Policy.

Many people think a hung parliament would be a good thing. I do not, for two reasons. The first is that difficult decisions are going to have to be made on public spending cuts and that will be almost impossible with a number of vested interests having to be placated. The second reason is epitomised by Alex Salmond's recent speech.

The leader of the Scottish Nationalists says that in the event of a hung parliament (now that he thinks it a good idea he calls it a 'balanced parliament') he would press for the best possible deal for Scotland.

What this means is that whoever is trying to cling on in power may find themselves buying block votes from minority parties.

Using our money.

19 April, 2010

Marxism's last redoubt

Last weekend also saw the 30th anniversary of the coming to power of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

This country, formerly (Southern) Rhodesia, had been a major exporter of food. It is now bankrupt and the people starving, hyperinflation devastating the economy.

The Marxist Mugabe came to power with an army trained and financed by North Korea. Even recently a ship was detained carrying weapons sold or donated by China for him.

After the Lancaster House Agreement in 1979, Mrs Thatcher, new to power, had been assured by the Foreign Office that the country would be ruled by Joshua Nkomo or Bishop Muzorewa. It is said that her reaction after Mugabe won made an Icelandic volcano look like a mild stomach upset and that she never trusted the Foreign Office again.

Quite right, in my view.

Eddie Cochran

Last Saturday was the 50th anniversary of the death in a car crash of Eddie Cochran. Here he is from 1959 back in the days when this sort of music was edgy

April Vines

Spring has been a bit of a tentative affair here, on and off, but these little chaps know exactly what they are about, and when to start the vigorous growth that leads to ripe grapes in September.

They are sangiovese, of the Brunello strain, and the main ingredient of Chianti.

18 April, 2010

Northern Cyprus

Voters in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (it is recognised by this blog but by no nation other than Turkey) go to the polls today.

The history is not in dispute although almost everything else is. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire Cyprus was annexed by the British, and granted independence in 1960. Under its constitution, the Turkish minority were guaranteed a veto over new laws, the Vice-Presidency and 30% of parliamentary seats.

In 1974 The Greek government, which was then a military dictatorship, engineered a coup d'état and imposed its own dictator Nikos Sampson, who suspended the constitution. Turkey invaded and soon partitioned the northern part of the island, about 37%.

In 2004 the then General Secretary of the UN, Kofi Annan suggested a resolution of the problem, which was accepted by the Turkish group and rejected by the Greeks. In the same year the EU fanned the flames of the dispute by allowing Cyprus (officially all of it but in practice the south) to join. Turkey cannot join the EU unless the dispute is resolved, and it is almost certain that Cypriot accession was encouraged by anti-Turkish elements in the EU, notably France.

The current president of N.Cyprus, Mehmet Ali Talat, has a good relationship with his Greek opposite number Dimitris Christophias and progress, albeit slow, has been made. The wall has been torn down and there is some cross border movement. But Talat is losing, according to the polls, to his opponent, the more hard line Dervis Eroglu.

This vote is important, not just to the EU, but to NATO, Russia and the Islamist problem. All we can do is hope for the best.

A lightweight and an unconfident Germany

While we are on the subject of the worst crime in the world, I was saddened to hear that former Bishop Richard Williamson, who believes that only 2 or 300,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the second World War, and none of them in gas chambers, has been fined €10,000 by a German court for unburdening himself of these views in an interview to a Swedish newspaper while on German soil.

I knew Williamson slightly, years ago, when he taught at my old school. He was a fairly popular eccentric, and a good teacher, but a man to whom God had not granted the gift of being able to shut up. In retrospect I can quite imagine him falling for this guff.

Now, as it happens I disagree with him on this. Of course neither he nor I was there, and I couldn’t say if it was 5,999,999 or 6,000,001 Jews wiped out but I believe that the evidence indicates something like this number of exterminations and that for some of them Zyklon B was used. Williamson obviously does not believe that and that’s OK with me.

The reason I am saddened is not for Williamson but for Germany. Nothing could more closely reveal its threadbare historic consensus, and therefore the raison d’être of the modern country, more clearly than its not allowing people to express their views, however wrong they may seem to be.

Almost nobody still alive in Germany had anything to do with this. The Germans should have the confidence to let a lightweight like Williamson shoot his mouth off without becoming some sort of martyr to free speech.

Lighten up, is what I say.

The worst crime in the world

The subject of an interesting short story by GK Chesterton, the worst crime in the world was generally thought to be parricide.

For the Pope, who is in Malta celebrating the 1950th anniversary of St Paul’s shipwreck and his therefore unintentional evangelising of the island (it’s about the only thing to do when stuck in a place like Malta) the worst crime in the world is despair.

Papa Ratzinger is getting rather a tough time in Malta and the old boy, with his plea for the whole church to do penance (it’s not ordinary Roman Catholics who have been molesting children, is it Joseph?) is looking increasingly out of his depth. In fact he is looking desperate.

What the out of touch clergy doesn’t understand is that in the modern world the worst crime in the world is not parricide, not despair, but paedophilia, followed closely by smoking in a public place, denying the global warming shtick and receiving a bonus.

17 April, 2010

Grande Hermano (is watching you)

Could not resist this (hat tip to Adam Smith Institute)

16 April, 2010

Nuisance Nations

Countries which are a damn nuisance

for obvious reasons

Upsetting currency markets
Interfering in Cyprus
Stopping Macedonia calling itself Macedonia

see Greece

see Greece

Votes not to pay money it owes
- then points a volcano at its creditors

Rumpy poetry shock

At last: what to give the man or woman who has everything.

Herman van Rompuy, President of the EU, is publishing a book of Haikus he has written in boring meetings.

The haikus have been written in Dutch, but helpfully translated, in case your Dutch isn't quite sharp enough to get the full import, into English, French, German and Latin. A haiku is supposed to be 17 syllables and contain an eternal thought as well as a temporal observation and Rumpy doesn't always achieve this, but, hey, such literary masterpieces have got to be popular.

OK, OK. Just a taster:

They changed the water

of the pond. A few dead fish

were left behind.


15 April, 2010

The Vatican again

Now Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, says that the evidence is that 60% of paedophile cases involving priests are with boys, 30% with girls (who the other 10% are with I don't know). Other organisations claim that most involved girls.

Whatever, the subject is on the front page of the newspapers, yet again.

The thing to do, Tarcisio old love, when finding yourself in a hole, is to stop digging or, better still, to hand your spade to someone above so he can fill the hole, and you, in.

TV debates

The leaders of the three main parties in the UK are debating on television today for the first time.

Here's how it all started, 50 years ago

14 April, 2010

The Vatican: how not to manage news

The slogan, currently popular in British politics ‘They just don’t get it, do they?’, seems at the moment particularly apposite to the Roman Catholic Church.

Consider this. The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, pronouncing on the recent crisis, has said that paedophilia is not the result of clerical celibacy but of homosexuality. He may be right that it is nothing to do with celibacy but the rest of the statement is of such unparalleled stupidity it takes the breath away. Never mind the lack of any scientific backing for the statement, it seems to imply that a male priest interfering with a female child would be normal.

I find it hard to believe that someone at such an exalted level could believe this, but even harder to see why, even if he believed it, he thought it sensible to mouth off on the subject. What can this do except heap further opprobrium on an organisation many of whose supporters believe needs reforming, as well as keeping this surely unwelcome subject on the front page of the newspapers?

I say ‘unparalleled stupidity’ but Bertone’s diatribe is unquestionably matched by that of Giacomo Babini, the retired Bishop of Grosseto, who believes the entire scandal is part of a Zionist conspiracy against the Church. Good grief.

I think the best we can hope for is that both men were drunk.

I have argued for some time that the Holy See urgently needs a competent spin doctor, to design and teach the agreed line to take, and to stop these idiots opening their mouths in public. Peter Mandelson, the best, looks as if he will have a bit of time on his hands after 6th May, although I don’t know how the Vatican would react to employing someone whose nickname is ‘The Prince of Darkness’ and who is a Jewish homosexual. A good idea, perhaps, and it certainly wouldn't worry Mandelson, but surely there is a Vatican employee versed in these (dark) arts?

13 April, 2010

UK: debt and taxes

Here is a link to a paper by the Institute of Economic Affairs. It is only seven pages and worth reading if you have the time but let me give you this extract:

'If the tax burden were to remain constant in real terms, it would rise to £563bn (see
above) by 2014/15. Spending would have to fall by £185bn by 2014/15 (£167 bn in
today’s money) to balance the budget. This would lead to a real terms cut of 26% of
current spending (4.7% per annum) to be delivered over five years and I would
suggest this as the minimum necessary.'

What the IEA is saying is that there are massive tax rises in the offing which (naturally) the party leaders don't want to talk about. The tax burden is already too heavy. To keep taxes the same as now we would have to cut spending over the next five years by £167bn in today's money.

Just to remind you, the party leaders have identified only £12bn, and they are arguing tooth and nail about the meanness of the other. That's less than one twelfth of what needs to be done. The reason they are arguing is that they don't want you to find this out. It is like the two countries pretending to be at war in Orwell's 1984.


The euro surged on the foreign exchange markets yesterday as Eurozone leaders announced a package of direct loans to bail out Greece.

Today a more sober note prevails. The Royal Bank of Scotland's economics team (you didn't think they had one, did you?) said

“Reaction to the Greek bail-out package can only be described as lukewarm. The market still has some doubt over Greece’s ability to turn its fiscal position around and some investors view the bail-out as only kicking the can down the road.”

As I have said before, unless Greece seriously addresses its uncompetitiveness vis-a-vis Germany, in a couple of years the whole damn thing will happen again.

11 April, 2010

UK Elections 9: Saint Vince

The Liberal Democrats are doing fairly well in the polls at the moment, in particular in the marginal constituencies. In my view this is largely as a result of John ‘Vince’ Cable, the treasury spokesman.

Formerly an adviser to Labour Party chief John Smith, Cable stood for the Labour Party unsuccessfully in Glasgow Hillhead in 1970. He joined the Social Democratic Party when it spun away from Labour in the 1980s and the Liberal Democrats when the SDP merged with the Liberal Party in 1988.

Cable is a likeable man and made a name for himself when as stand-in leader he accused Gordon Brown of moving rapidly ‘from Stalin to Mr. Bean’.

Cable seems to run a remarkable spin operation, with many people believing that he, and he alone, forecast the financial crisis. What in fact he did do was to warn, in 2003, that consumer debt was too easy in Britain, and that it was secured on unsustainably high house prices. Many others did, too, notably the Conservative Party. Cable was right, but it was no great shakes. He could have read it in the newspapers. Cable did not go so far as to advise higher interest rates. Gordon Brown was keeping interest rates low – even changing the definition of inflation to stop the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England from raising them – to keep house prices rising and everybody happy.

At the same time Cable was urging the Government to join the euro, which he has now admitted was not sensible advice: ‘there are various things that we have learnt about euroland, and about the eurozone, which are clearly problems that need to be resolved.' Many of us had been saying it was a disastrous policy but 'Vince' wouldn't listen.

Cable’s spin operation went wrong recently when he let it be known that he had been briefed by the Treasury as a possible future chancellor and that he was ‘ready to serve’ (a phrase drawn, I think, from Paris Hilton’s unsuccessful and brief campaign to be President: I'm ready to, like, serve). The Treasury fed out to the media that the meeting had been at his request and that they had not been briefing a future chancellor.

As regards the rest of the recession Cable has admitted in his book that he had no idea what was going on in America. In fact he hadn't come close to what was happening.

For me, as I have said before, the writing does not go all the way through. Cable is a help to his party because he gives them credibility by looking like some sort of sage. Both Labour and the Tories need to find him out, which in my view shouldn’t be difficult.

10 April, 2010

China and the west

China ran a trade deficit last month. It imported more stuff than it exported.

Something to remember while we talk in bars and at dinner tables about them taking over the world.

The Grand National

Bet if you think you must. My views are encapsulated here

They speak highly of Dream Alliance for an each - way bet

Good luck.

Lech Kaczynski RIP

It is reported that President Lech Kaczynski and, among others, his wife and the President of the Polish Central Bank are among the dead in a plane crash at Smolensk. They were on their way to Katyn to commemorate the massacre of the Polish Officer Corps during the war.

Former President Putin has been put in charge of the negotiations and, given that relations between Poland and Russia have not been good of late, it is hoped that he can come up quickly with an open report.

Kaczynski was a trade union activist and was imprisoned in 1981 when the Communists imposed martial law. At one time he was president while his twin brother was Prime Minister.

09 April, 2010

UK Elections 8: Opinion Polls

The Conservatives on 39%, 7 points ahead of Labour, or, on the same day, 37-35. What are we to make of this? Are the opinion polls so inaccurate that it is a complete waste of time reading them (and of money by the newspapers publishing them)?

The story is not one of complete stupidity. Pollsters first knew there was something wrong in the 1992 election. I remember driving back from the count (I was standing on behalf of The Anti-Federalist League - now UKIP - in Bristol). It was 9th April, exactly eìghteen years ago.

Everyone thought Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, was going to win. But the story unfolded as we drove through the night and it was a clear, if not completely comfortable, win for John Major and the Conservatives. The pollsters put their heads together and began to worry.

In 1997 and 2001 there wasn’t much need to worry as the result was deemed obvious, and a landslide delivers inaccuracies of itself, although they noticed in 2001 a slight but definite overestimation of the Labour vote. In 2005 the trend continued. They identified the following problems:

1. Demographics. The boundaries for the constituencies are usually at least five years out of date. People have been moving out of Labour city strongholds to live in Tory, LibDem or marginal seats. In Labour marginals the Labour vote may not hold up but if they move to Tory marginals they might turn red.
2. As a result it needs fewer votes to hold a Labour seat than a Tory one.
3. Voting intentions. Interviewees are asked how likely they are to vote. It would seem that people who vote Labour are more likely to say they will vote and less likely actually to do it.
4. Confidence. If they feel certain their party is going to win they often don’t bother to vote.
5. Strength in the marginals. The Tories are widely thought to have pursued a progressive campaign, pushing themselves heavily in the seats they hope to gain. No one can be suire how well this is working.

The pollsters weight the vote they have taken from their sample of about 1,000 to cover these variables.

How influential these variables are likely to be in this election they are still pondering. How likely they will be in a future election, with for example a Conservative administration defending a weak or a strong lead, is even less certain.

So spare a thought for the pollsters. It is a job more difficult than it looks. I was going to add ‘but someone has to do it’ but I’m not even sure of that.

The Tim Hedges guide: If the Tories are on 39 or 40 and at least six points ahead of Labour, they will win a clear majority. Less than 6 points difference and less than 39% of the vote is likely to mean a hung parliament. If the two parties are level pegging Labour will gain a majority.


Today is the 204th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, perhaps the greatest engineer who ever lived.

There are several biographies of Brunel but I should like to see one of his father Sir Marc Isambard Brunel who was French, got caught up in the French Revolution, escaped to America then Britain where he married an English girl (Sophie Kingdom) he had met in France, got bailed out of a debtors' prison by Wellington's Government who were scared he would work for the Russians, and got a knighthood (for building the Rotherhithe Tunnel) which Isambard never did.

All very strange.

08 April, 2010

An American citizen

If the administration of George W Bush had approved the execution of an American citizen without trial there would have been international outrage. And in fact, despite being the most internationally criticised American government in history, it never did.

Now President Obama has instructed that Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen living in Yemen, be shot on sight. He will probably be killed by an unmanned Predator aircraft.

Mr al-Awlaki has not been convicted of a crime.

Change has indeed come to America.

07 April, 2010

UK Elections 7: The first porky

Truth is often the first casualty at election time but Gordon Brown has issued a .. er.. misleading statement so egregious that it must be picked up on.

At the last Prime Minister's Questions Brown, and interestingly Alastair Darling before him, said that the Tories' refusal to raise National Insurance Contributions was 'taking money out of the economy'.

Of course not raising taxes is in fact leaving money in the economy. It is taking money out of the already bloated State.

It may be an error that these old lefties confuse the State with the economy but I don't think so. Why this has been let through by the BBC I don't know. Probably they have no one with any economic nous.

06 April, 2010

UK Elections 6: the starting gun in mid-race

The UK election has been announced, as everyone supposed it would be, for 6th May.

At 30 days the campaign is short compared to what is possible, but in fact I have never experienced a longer campaign - it seems to have been going on since September, perhaps longer than that.

I might say in passing that while everyone seems to think fixed term parliaments would be a good thing, this excessive excitement, stirred up by the media, towards a date they know in advance, would make trust, or at least interest, in politics a casualty. Voter turnout would collapse if they were so fed up they resented even the thought of a politician appearing on their screens.

On this occasion it seems that there cannot possibly be anything said which has not been said already, but I expect they will think of a few things, many of them half-truths, which is what blogs are here for.

At present there seems to be a fair bit of distance between the two main parties, but that could change. It's almost...er..interesting.

05 April, 2010

Gays under the bed

My parents told me that in Northern Ireland you used to see outside guesthouses ‘Catholics need not apply’ and I remembered this when I read about the case of the Bed and Breakfast owners who wouldn’t allow homosexual couples.

The law has traditionally been that a landlord can treat the place as his home and if he wants to ban you for whatever reason – big nose, mullet haircut – he can. But now there is a list of things over which he must be tolerant. The State tells him what he is allowed to have strong views about; it tells him what to think.

I often wondered how the B & B owners of Armagh knew their guests were Catholics; the smell of incense coming from under the door? Not wearing an orange sash over your pyjamas? And the thought occurred too that if two men asked to share a room purely on cost grounds (Nothing queer about us, I assure you!) the owners would presumably have no problem with that but ironically would be quite entitled to bar them.

No one wants to live in a society where guesthouses have signs outside saying ‘No Mullets’… sorry…. I meant ‘No Gays’, but when the law intervenes it makes an ass of itself. If you think that the owner is a pig-ignorant bigot, don’t stay there.

Stupidly, with an election coming up, Chris Grayling, the Shadow Home Secretary, has felt the need to air his views on the gays-in-the-guesthouse issue, missing, as President Chirac once put it, an excellent opportunity to keep silent. The Guardian is not letting go (Shocked! Yes, shocked!) and the Conservatives are making a complete hash of rowing back. I suggest the tactic of Ken Clark who, when it was pointed out that a statement he made was completely at odds with a previous speech, replied ‘That was before I was exposed to the collective wisdom of my colleagues’.

04 April, 2010


In 1966, after the assassination of South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, Private Eye magazine ran a cover with laughing, dancing Africans in ceremonial dress and beneath it the caption 'Verwoerd: a nation mourns'.

Perhaps the same cynical feeling will apply to the death of Eugene Terre'Blanche, the white supremacist beaten to death supposedly by his own workers over unpaid wages. Perhaps Terr'Blanche was not important enough to justify the cynicism. He was a throwback to the 1960s and had not been long out of prison for assault.

The South African President has appealed for calm and let us hope there is calm: the country has enough troubles without this nonsense rearing its ugly head.

03 April, 2010


I did not throw away the empty toothpaste tube this morning because I really didn't know how to and after prolonged thought I decided worrying about it was an inefficient use of my time.

The tube is basically metal, isn't it? Always used to be, anyway. But surely that was a plastic covering to the metal? and the top was certainly plastic. But the small amount of remaining toothpaste content (how small? in percentage to the overall weight? or to the overall volume?) was surely consumable - I have often swallowed some - and therefore organic waste.

There is another bin marked 'non-recyclable'. How am I supposed to know what is or isn't recyclable? Cobalt may have a half-life of 4,000 years which is, I suppose, a little long for our purposes but I haven't got cobalt, I've got Colgate.

I suppose I am in favour of recycling but I can't help feeling it should be done by someone other than me. There are machines which have recorded into their sophisticated memory banks the exact composition of a toothpaste tube, even one which isn't squeezed right to the last spot, and are capable of breaking it down into its component forms. Why haven't we got any?

In the modern world we practise division of labour. I haven't asked the dustmen, or refuse executives or whatever they are called, to do any writing for me and I don't want to do rubbish separation for them.

I hear that in England there are hidden cameras next to rubbish bins to record who is being naughty. In Rome this would probably be popular - Italians like being filmed - and you would get housewives dressing up - hairdos, high heels and fur coats - to put the dustbins out. A definite improvement.


'Freedom or Death' is the motto of the Hellenic Republic, and in the next few months the people may be pondering the choice more often than usual.

Angela Merkel has got her way and there will be, effectively, no bail out of Greece by the eurozone. The IMF is the first line of defence, after which direct country to country loans can be made (Get your chequebook out, Cyprus) provided all 16 agree.

According to Martin Wolf in the FT the final obstacles were that Greeks retire earlier than Germans and that a huge chunk of debt had to be renewed just at the time of elections in North Rhineland-Westphalia.

But the IMF is known for imposing tough measures on its patients. What will happen if it tells Greece to devalue and therefore leave the eurozone?

02 April, 2010

UK Elections 5: political intelligence

For the Labour Party one thinks of Harold Wilson, Peter Shore, Bryan Gould, Tony Blair and of course Peter Mandelson. The Tories have always had people with technical intelligence, like Keith Joseph, Oliver Letwin (and his mother Shirley who was even brighter) and David Willets but these people have always been something of an electoral liability.

Suddenly from this generation of Conservative Leaders there has emerged someone with a genuine political brain, a finely honed instinct for where the public are on an issue.

He may have a squeaky voice and look like the 5th form swat, but George Osborne may come out of this election in the unlikely role of hero. He saved his party from 'the election that never was' by threatening to reduce inheritance tax which, against many predictions, appealed greatly to middle England and cast Gordon Brown into funk; now, as the election is getting closer and his party was failing to improve its ratings, he has pulled out of the political hat Brown's National Insurance rises.

NI has always been a politician's way of improving the tax take while not raising headline income tax rates. But there are two quite distinctive taxes going under this name. Employee's NI is indeed an income tax - slightly different targeting with minima and maxima but essentially just that. Employer's NI by contrast is simply a tax on employing people - the last thing you want to raise when emerging from a recession with unemployment rates high.

Brown wanted to fudge the issue and Osborne has exposed him, in the process bringing out major business figures in his support, and avoiding the political tax reduction pitfall of favouring the rich, by concentrating the reductions at lower income levels.

It looks as if the election might be a contest not between Cameron and Brown but between Osborne and Mandelson. Osborne, having lost the first round on Oleg Deripaska's yacht, has won the second decisively.

01 April, 2010

The Feast of all Fools

I was thinking of blogging a competition for Fool of the Year, but these last twelve months have thrown up so many candidates, what with bankers and environmentalists and politicians, that it seemed invidious to choose one.

I enjoy the annual hoaxing. I think my favourite was the American hamburger chain which announced a new left handed burger, the sauce dripping out from the other side. They were inundated with requests for it, but a larger number insisted on the traditional product. I suppose no one ever went bust underestimating the intelligence of the public.

The newspapers are sometimes more difficult. You cannot trust anything you read, but there again some of the stuff in the papers is so odd you might mistake it for an April Fool. A good example is the Arcelor Mittal Orbit, so absurd and ugly that one naturally assumed it was a hoax. It will, however, grace the London Olympics, a monument to the profligacy of our politicians and the gullibility of the public. You can see why they announced it on March 31st.

The good folk at Wikipedia have made a good effort of the home page.

My advice is to believe nothing unless you read it on this blog.

Catholicism: the final solution

With every day seeming to bring more bad news for the Roman Catholic Church, amidst failing confidence, falling attendance and collapsing revenues, I think the Vatican needs to take a deep breath and go for a complete rebranding exercise. Here are my suggestions in simple steps.

I A change of name from the traditional European based ‘Church of Rome’. Something shorter and punchier like ‘The Cathies’

II The Pope is out of touch, out of date and seems to have some connection with this child molestation business which, innocent or guilty, he can’t shake off. The traditional way of getting rid of a bad pope has been for one of the faithful to put a pillow over his head while he is sleeping, then announcing it as a heart attack. The old boy is in his eighties and has had a good run.

III The new pope should be from outside the traditional papabili. An obvious example would be South America, where a large number of the faithful live, but I favour China. Given that Chinese cardinals are made in pectore or secretly it could be pretty well anyone, for example the head of the Chinese branch of the public relations company I intend to set up.

IV The arrival of the new pope would be accompanied by the greatest evangelical push since the Third Crusade. Like the crusades this would be the subject of co-financing from outside the Church, western industry chipping in to create a little religious and civil unrest, helping take Chinese workers’ minds off the job of competing with our car industry.

Hollywood chips in with a blockbuster biopic of an early Chinese saint martyred by the evil Mandarin regime. Starring Blad Pitt wearing a silly beard (oh? You say he has got one already?) it screens all over China and generates a deep and occasionally explosive religious fervour

V The Chinese Pope, or Chope, would announce that all paedophilia had now ceased and that anything which in the future looks suspect is merely a secret initiation rite.

VI The astonishing cashflow generated by evangelising upwards of a billion people who bring a couple of yuan to church every Sunday could be used to fund a more traditional religious body, based, for example, in its own state in a Mediterranean country. For a while, like the late Roman Empire, the Church would have two heads, eventually reducing to only one.

VII My own fees are modest: plenary indulgence and the keys to the Vatican wine cellar.