30 June, 2010


The German vote is going to another ballot. Not quite nail biting but interesting stuff.

PS Now a third ballot...

PPS And Wulff wins!

Merkel is wounded but not holed beneath the waterline. We won't know for a while what she had to promise to get this vote

Cabinet away-days

There is a fair bit of grumbling that David Cameron has decided to hold a Cabinet meeting in Bradford, Yorkshire. The cost, apparently, is £100,000.

Mega blogger Ian Dale says 'What can they decide in Bradford that they couldn't in London?'

I'm afraid that isn't the point. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the UK is run by a London-centred elite (Dale, with a political publishing business in the capital, is a part of it). Worse, the people know this and resent it. Nothing is going to promote regional unrest more than if they think the Government neither knows nor cares anything about them.

I fully support this modest expenditure and hope it continues. Indeed we should go further and move most of the government departments into the regions where property is cheaper: ministers, policy wonks, Special Advisers, the lot. It would show our elected masters that there is something more to the United Kingdom than a couple of square miles around Westminster.

Germany's Presidential Elections

Germany elects a new President today. The post is largely ceremonial and the choice is not made by popular vote.

Instead, there is a vote by an Assembly of 1,244 members, half of them deputies on the Bundestag, the other half representatives from the various states. Despite the consittution making it clear that the Assembly members are not bound by party loyalty the result is very likely to be a function of party politics. Angela Merkel has put forward a dull, safe candidate, Christian Wulff, 51, who is the Governor of Lower Saxony and a member of her centre-right CDU party. The Centre-Left by contrast have nominated Joachim Gauck, 70, a Pastor and charismatic human rights activist from the old East Germany.

Gauck is a very strong candidate and according to Der Spiegel many centre-right assembly members are considering voting for him. Only twenty or so of the 1,244 members would need to go against the party line to cause an upset.

The reason is the unpopularity of Angela Merkel, who is seen as having made a mess of the Greek bailout and has introduced an unpopular austerity package. The feeling increasingly is that Merkel is unable to work in a team. She came to power, a female from the East, with a mandate to reform. Many think she has failed and if her candidate loses today, her movement, what we might call Merkellism, will be finished.

29 June, 2010

A sign of our times (2)

Today we read of an 'artist', Fiona Banner, whose exhibition in Tate Britain consists of two former RAF planes, one hanging from the ceiling by its tail, the other on the floor upside down, and ... er... well, that's it. She hasn't even painted them yellow.

'It is a timely and well-placed work, which enters into a dialogue not just with the decorum of its architecture, but also with space' wrote the Guardian. The Times goes rapturous 'the two vast war machines.. occupy neo-classical spaces...even as we deplore violence and destruction we glorify and celebrate its symbols' (soon you'll have to pay to read this twaddle).

At the same time we learn that a number of creative artists have complained that galleries have accepted money from BP. It claims that sponsorship programmes of companies like BP and Shell are "means by which attention can be distracted from their impacts on human rights, the environment and the global climate".

Oh dear. Artists are, unfortunately, dependent on sponsorship, and we cannot always certify the decency of the sponsors. Some of the characters from whom Michelangelo accepted money were quite unsavoury and, a first for this blog in mentioning them in the same sentence, Fiona Banner has put her planes in the Duveen galleries. Joseph Duveen is known to have damaged the Elgin marbles while putting them in their current home and lied about the provenance of several works of art..

But of course it is not general horridness which is being talked about here. We are expected to accept without question the prevailing bigotry, even to the extent of refusing sponsorship for the arts. It is climate change liturgy, and if Joseph Duveen had bought a plastic bag at Sainsbury's we would have to reconsider his eligibility to give.

My advice is: don't accept this tosh. Art and left wing ideology are and must remain different things. Go to Tate Britain and demand to know why nothing has been financed by Exxon.

28 June, 2010

Some comfort

After the pitiful news of the football (apparently it was the referee's fault), and Britain's two wonder drivers not winning the Grand Prix, there is some good news: England has had a series win, 3-0, against Australia, of all nations, in the one day internationals.

26 June, 2010

Football factoid

I am indebted to Dizzy for the information that the last time Italy got no further than the Group stage in the World Cup (1974), the only goal in their final match was scored by Fabio Capello.

No team has ever won the World Cup with a foreign manager.

24 June, 2010

Cuts and Germany

Further to my post earlier today, a credible scenario might run like this: Germany realises that it would be politically unacceptable for it to leave the euro, so it ruthlessly follows the path of retrenchment, a game at which the others cannot match it, until the others, particularly the Olive Belt, ask it to leave. Then it says OK.

To be honest I don't think Angela Merkel is sharp and Machiavellian enough for this, but I thought I ought to mention it.

Peter Walker

Peter Walker, who has died aged 78, headed up the first ever Department of the Environment, in 1970.

He used to say that Ted Heath, the Prme Minister, had wanted to call it 'The Department for Life' until it was pointed out that that would make Walker 'Minister for Life'.

Cuts in the UK and Europe

Voters do not of course have infinite knowledge and occasionally you have to trust your instinct. Rarely has this been more the case than in the last election with the timing of the cuts. Alastair Darling made a persuasive sounding case – and is still making it – that we shouldn’t endanger the economic recovery by cutting spending too soon.

For me part of the judgment was a speech made by that non-economist Prime Minister James Callaghan, some 35 years ago. It went something like this: ‘We used to think that we could simply spend our way out of recession.... I have to tell you in candour that that is not an option..’

So if it was Labour Party policy in the 1970s, why isn’t it now? Why does Alistair Darling insist that in the teeth of a recession public sector spending had to be maintained?

But one of the most telling arguments for immediate cuts came just yesterday, with scarcely any coverage in the newspapers. It was that one member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, which sets interest rates, had voted to increase the rate. OK, their are eight members of the MPC (usually 9, one seat is vacant – why not apply?) but this is the start, the first rumblings which George Osborne with his budget will seek to assuage.

The difference between the markets quietly swallowing our debt, as they have done since Waterloo, and just holding back a bit, humming and haa-ing, is psychologically tiny. It might well be influenced by other factors, such as a similar country falling into difficulty, but the effect is dramatic. Whilst the deficit at £155 billion is massive our total debt, including unfunded public pensions, is £1.3 trillion; that is £1,300 billion. Every one percent extra on the cost of this is going to be £13 billion, which is more than Osborne reduced welfare by over four years. More than the VAT increase. And Spain pays 2.5% more than Germany on its debt.

And now there are the first suggestions that the cost of servicing this debt might go up. In my view it would certainly have done were it not for Osborne’s cuts.

In Continental Europe the story is a little different. There is a furious comment by George Soros in the press today to the effect that Germany should pursue economic policies for the rest of the eurozone, rather than just to suit itself. But why? Poor Mrs Merkel, unpopular abroad and at home (it seems the German President resigned because he simply couldn’t stand her) is trying to do what is best for Germany. The only reason her coalition hasn’t collapsed is because nobody is ready with an alternative.

The fact remains that Germany has in the past been prepared to take difficult action economically and will in the future. The rest, with a couple of exceptions, have swept the matter under the carpet, hoping, without mentioning that hope, that the Germans will pay. One analyst, quoted in the Telegraph, said that either Germany does more to boost liquidity, in which case it will set off inflation in Germany and cause Germany to leave the euro: or they don’t ease liquidity, in which case it will lead to deflation in Southern Europe and force them out of the euro.

That is an increasingly voiced opinion. At least the UK is in control of its own destiny.

23 June, 2010

General misdemeanour

If I had said a few days ago that a clean cut, senior American general would have to resign because of an article in Rolling Stone magazine, you would have waited for the punchline. It is quite likely, however, to be true.

The article comes out on Friday but you can read it here, now. General McChrystal thinks quite highly of himself and his immediate team, but quite poorly of the White House machine. Unfortunately for him he is prepared to say it.

It was for just such as this (albeit worse) that Truman fired Macarthur during the Korean War.

Let's see what Mr Obama does.

UK Budget

Mr. Osborne is to be congratulated for being the first Chancellor in my memory at least who, when short of money, didn't take it out on drinkers.

The reversal of the planned increase in duty on cider is good news. Cider always bore lower duty because it was classed as an agricultural product (beer wasn't). And yet in the South West of England you can get cider as strong as wine. I knew of a cider house where the glasses had two handles because the drinkers were shaking so much on their first of the day.

Of course the main point of the budget was to keep the financial markets quiet and buying our debt. In this I think Osborne has done enough - as I write 24 hours later the pound has risen over one cent against the euro.

22 June, 2010

Savage Cuts

Earlier this year I posted here that there had been no cuts during Mrs Thatcher's time as PM.

Now, with George Osborne's first budget sending people howling for their security blankets, I feel it only right to mention that public spending will go up every year for this 5 year parliament.

We haven't even seen the start of it. Yet.

World Cup: technology to blame

I am indebted to Mr.Eugenides, who reads the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, for this:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il "gives regular tactical advice during matches using mobile phones that are not visible to the naked eye," the team's manager Kim Jong-hun told ESPN Thursday. The coach dutifully told the sports channel that Kim Jong-il developed the James-Bond technology himself.

Due to a faulty mobile signal in capitalist South Africa the brave N.Korean team lost 7-0 to Portugal

Astronomy update shocker

I'm not frightfully well up on astronomy - it's always semed to me that it would be going on whether I watched it or not, that there was nothing I could do - but I was surprised to read this in the Telegraph, written by Dr David Jess, a solar physicist at Queen's University Belfast

"Last night marked the summer solstice – the longest day of the year, and the period when the Sun reaches its northernmost latitude and highest point in the sky at noon."

This is what happens when you take your eye off the ball. It seems we have abandoned Copernican Theory and gone back to the idea that the Sun rotates round the Earth.

The Vatican will have to start reconsidering that pardon for Galileo.

20 June, 2010

Blue cheese

A scandal is erupting in Turin, where shoppers have been astounded to find their mozzarella turning blue within seconds of opening the packet. A German manufacturer is blamed and about 70,000 mozzarella balls have been impounded.

What is more surprising is the information that mozzarella is made in Germany and sold to Italy.

A sign of our times

The Sunday Times reports that two brothers, Jake and Dinos Chapman, have purchased Brueghel's Calvary, painted in 1607, defaced it, among other things giving Christ the head of an insect, and put it back on the market for three times the price.

'The sublime is expensive', said Jake Chapman

19 June, 2010


Not the long suit of this blog, but a summary is always useful.

England's cricketers did very badly against Bangladesh, the test cricketing equivalent of Partick Thistle.

For the first time in more than a hundred years no Englishman will be contesting the  men's singles at Wimbledon.

We are about to be thrown out of the Football World Cup.

England is good at sailing, rowing and cycling, sports which are conducted sitting down.

On the subject of football, I hope people were shocked by Wayne Rooney, who earns, if I am not mistaken, something like £80,000 a week (why are footballers' wages quoted weekly as if they were unskilled workers? Mind you a glance at the England team will answer that). The poor little rich boy bleated that the fans were booing him: people on £500 a week who had saved for months to travel thousands of miles to see England, and were disgusted at the heartless, gutless display which Rooney and his colleagues provided.

Rooney earns so much and is so famous that putting on an England shirt is just a sideline to his wealth creation. He and the rest of the overpaid idle rich should be replaced by people who want to play for their country.

Poor Mr Capello really must wonder what he has let himself in for.

Myanmar: no hope

In Myanmar, or Burma as most people think of it, it is Aung San Suu Kyi's 65th birthday.

She was married to the late Dr Michael Aris, the Tibetan specialist, and was not even able to go to her husband's funeral. As such she is, I suppose, jointly or optionally British, and yet she has been imprisoned for years without our doing anything.

Readers of this blog who fail to understand why we felt able to invade Iraq, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone but not Burma will not find much of an answer here. The regime in Rangoon is maintained by India and China. Whilst the Indians have stopped actually selling arms to Rangoon the Chinese haven't, and both have strong commercial ties which keep the money flowing.

President Obama has said Aung San Suu Kyi ought to be released, and I expect he felt better afterwards. It won't help the people of Burma. That would require standing up to China. And Obama won't do that.

Change hasn't come to Burma.

18 June, 2010

Cutting kitsch

Not everything is bad with the UK Government's austerity drive.

The awful English Heritage and its hangers on were preparing to build a 'visitor centre' at Stonehenge with carparks, souvenirs and the 'Stonehenge Experience'.

Now it has been cancelled and the stones can be left in peace.

17 June, 2010

PR - how not to do it

No, not Proportional Representation this time (although thre are plenty of ways not to do it) but Public Relations.

BP has had a bad accident, but managed to make it worse, getting almost the entire US nation united against it, through its Chief Executive's ability to open his mouth and get a large foot inside it. There are whispers within BP that they just can't shut him up, which is, to put it at its mildest, unfortunate.

But where is the Head Honcho, the Chairman? Carl Hendrik Svanberg is his name and when the accident happened he went below periscope depth, claiming to be on holiday (obviously doesn't own a mobile 'phone or see the CNN news).

But Obama summoned him to the White House, presumably confused that he wasn't British (he is Finnish). 'I mean, I've seen the movies and all baddies are British, right? I mean, change has come to Britsih Petroleum'

And here is what Svanberg said, in an accent which reminded you of Arnie Schwarzenegger playing the role of a German Concentration Camp Governor: 'He (Obama) cares about ze small people. Und ve care about ze small people'.

Well, that should have raised morale in the Louisiana fishing villages.

16 June, 2010

BP and the beautiful game

I am indebted to Lord Soley, former Clive Soley MP, for this remarkable insight:

"I’m no football expert and I’m not paranoid but does anyone else think that Cameron told Robert Green to let the ball in deliberately so that the US didn’t feel totally trashed and oiled up by the Brits!?"

When you look at it, it seems obvious

Bloody Sunday

There is an old joke that as a plane lands in Belfast the captain says ‘and for those of you who want to adjust your watches, put them back 200 years.’ For now we are looking at 38 years ago, although the origins of the matter lie further back, and the resentment will last into the future.

The Bloody Sunday enquiry, investigating the deaths of 14 civilians in a riot in 1972, must leave non-British observers in confusion. There was an investigation by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, immediately afterwards which said the soldiers’ behaviour ‘bordered on the reckless’.

Then in 1998 the new Prime Minister Tony Blair instigated a new enquiry, headed by Lord Savile. That enquiry has now been completed. It took 12 years and cost a bit short of £200 million.

The principal finding of the Savile enquiry seems to be that none of the rioters were armed.

But someone was.

In an article in the Daily Mail, General Sir Michael Rose, who as a junior officer was on the scene that day, says

‘It was the IRA who started firing with the Thompson sub-machine gun..

..There was no doubt that the IRA gunmen were firing from their positions on the galleries of the flats opposite..’

Six of one and half a dozen of the other? Not really. The paras were wrong to shoot at unarmed civilians (but right to shoot at armed gunmen) and we simply cannot have our armed forces killing unarmed people without the most rigorous scrutiny of their actions. I find the oft quoted cost of the Enquiry irrelevant; if truth is expensive we still have to have it.

But here I think the matter should end. These were young soldiers, following unwise orders to tear down the barricade and attack the rioters (who were throwing nail bombs by the way). Martin McGuiness, now Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, has admitted he was No.2 in the IRA in Derry at the time. The Savile Report says he might well have been there, holding that sub-machine gun. In what other area of politics could a man admit to having been a terrorist, responsible for the deaths of innocent people, and not resign? Nowhere but Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is different.

Tony Blair ordered this enquiry because he had been told by the Irish Prime Minister that it was necessary for the Peace Process. Perhaps it was. I hope it has satisfied some grievances, lit up some dark areas. But it should stop there.

15 June, 2010

Execution in Utah

Ronnie Lee Gardner was sentenced to death in 1985, for shooting a lawyer in a courthouse. He will be executed by firing squad.

For many years I believed capital punishment to be a deterrent but my mind changed after the case of the British West Midlands Police fitting up suspects. It further changed with the growth in the number of weirdos who do not see execution as a deterrent but as an attraction.

But the USA has capital punishment and that is their business.

And it isn't really the method of execution I object to. If I were to be executed I wouldn't care how they did it as long as it was quick. All executions affect the people designated to carry them out and this is not healthy, but I suppose unavoidable. I don't know if a firing squad involves more people than a lethal injection.

No, what I wanted to highlight was the fact that he was convicted 25 years ago. That's a quarter of a century on death row. In England when we had capital punishment if you were not hanged within 101 dys of sentence you were reprieved. 25 years awaiting death must surely be what the American Constitution calls 'a cruel and unusual punishment'.

Italy: cost of parliament

A referendum is being proposed in Italy about the cost of its parliamentarians. This is what they get:

Basic salary €9,980 per month
Secretary €4,030 per month (usually a family member)
Rental €2,900 per month
Office up to €6,455 per month

The recent vote to reduce salaries by 10% hides the fact that they secretly (without it being mentioned in the official records) increased them by €1,135 per month (more than 10%)

No tax is payable on the above.

But look at what else they get

FREE car with driver
FREE cellphone
FREE Cinema
FREE Theatre
FREE Buses, trains, motorway charges and internal flights
FREE Swimming pools and gymns
FREE Accident and life insurance
FREE Private clinics
FREE Restaurants - they eat and drink around €1.5 million a year

Overall they cost around €1.25 billion a year.

Now some people want value

14 June, 2010

The vuvuzela

The locals in South Africa like to use a plastic horn called the vuvuzela at football matches when supporting their – or anyone else’s – team. It produces a loud, buzzing sort of noise, apparently in B flat, like Haydn’s Symphony No. 98.

Maybe they blow it when they are not supporting a team – I don’t really care.

The French captain Patrice (I hope I’ve got the name right) Evra, from Dakar, says it puts him off when playing and that he can’t sleep for hearing it outside his hotel room. The main complaint is from the media, who haven’t got sufficiently targeted microphones, and say it interrupts their broadcasts.

BBC News wasted taxpayers’ money on an ‘expert’ who said it could be bad for your ears!

There are calls to ban it, as you might expect, as with any bit of fun; the new regulator class is like that, and the expert is what Marx called a ‘useful idiot’.

In cricket the West Indies have steel bands, blow horns and play reggae. It livens things up and it is the excitement of this atmosphere which gets young people to support the game.

During the last football world cup I was on a drive down through Italy and every time Italy scored all the lorry drivers leant on their horns – they had the radio on in the cab. It was deafening, probably a danger to traffic, but what the hell! I like a bit of local colour and a bit of noise. Did they think Soweto was going to be the same as Zurich?

Lighten up. I wish I had a vuvuzela here. For when England play Italy in the final (OK, OK)


The Glastonbury Festival starts in a few days.

Here are some perhaps little known facts: Saga, the insurance outlet for the zimmer framed, is offering... oh, I’ve just realised I qualify for Saga ... the insurance outfit for the middle aged, is offering over 50s who take out its motor home insurance a refund on the rental for a motor home pitch at the Festival.

The big draw act this year at Glastonbury is Stevie Wonder, who had his first hit some 47 years ago.

And the BBC are sending 400 people to cover the event. Four hundred.

I don’t at all mind a private event for middle class hippy-manqués but that our state broadcaster is taking it seriously is quite, quite preposterous.

12 June, 2010

Belgium doesn't speak (but no one listens)

I feel I could not mention the Dutch elections without covering the Belgian ones, too. Belgium goes to the polls tomorrow and the result will be ignored throughout the whole world, and probably in Belgium too. Last time it was nine months before a government was formed but they soldiered on, run by functionaries with no mandate from the people. Their system is, if anything, crazier than the Dutch one, for Belgium is regarded even by its own population as two separate countries: the Flemish, hard working, industrialised North and the French, overspending, unemployed South.

The economic plans of the two semi-countries match this stereotype: Bart de Wever in the North wants an independent Flanders and doesn't want to pay any more to the South. Elio di Rupio in the South has published an expansionist draft budget (ie more money coming from the North).

The problem is that under their system the two sides are supposed to form a coalition.

Such is the insane union we British joined in 1973: a cover-up of democracy, no trial by jury, bureaucratic rule.  We should at least take a good look at what is going on in Europe and debate it.

Flotilla Wars

The National Union of Israeli Students are organising a flotilla to run from Israel to Turkey, with the aim of highlighting the plight of the Turkish minorities, Kurds and Armenians.

Rather amusing, in my view. Let's see how much coverage the BBC gives it.

The Dutch speak (no one listens)

The recent elections in Holland have thrown up the usual proportional representation farce. The ousted Prime Minister, crazed europhile Jan Peter Balkenende, had been unable to form a lasting coalition, despite trying for four years.

The party with the most seats is the VVD, an economic liberal party which emphasised the need for public expenditure cuts. But it cannot get a majority in parliament even with another party. It will need four, and it seems likely that one of these will be Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom which is an extreme far right organisation which wants to ‘de-Islamise’ Holland. Wilders has more than doubled his seats since the last election.

So the likelihood is that having voted for economic restraint the Dutch will not get it, because the VVD will not be able to get it over its partners, but will get the policies of a half crazed fascist.

If this is democracy I’m a Dutchman.

Interestingly the mood in Europe is to let them get on with it, as Der Spiegel says let Wilders show how little he has to offer. This is a stark contrast to when in Austria Joerg Haider rose to the status of party leader and possible Prime Minister. Then there were mumblings that Austrian MEPs shouldn’t be allowed to take their seats in the European Parliament.

Holidaying in Italy (3): taxis in Rome

I have been asked by the Roman Taxi Drivers’ Association to include the following supplement

The proper environment for a Roman taxi driver is standing around talking to his friends. Don’t forget when you step into his cab that you are distracting him from this important activity.

Your driver likes to relax with his seat well back. If you can’t get in, lie down on the back seat

It is his cab and he chooses the radio programme. It is not his fault if he is slightly hard of hearing and has to have it on loud. In any case, football is more important than passengers.

The suspension on the taxi is not your concern. If your driver feels it appropriate to drive at high speed over kerbstones, potholes and cobbles in order to get to his next coffee your destination he will do so.

What keeps the traffic moving in Rome is an informal race between taxis, buses and the police. Your driver is a determined winner.

The shortest distance between two points is not necessarily a straight line. Sit back and enjoy the view.

Red lights are for wimps.

When approaching the gridlocked roundabout in the Piazza Venezia close your eyes. Your driver will also close his.

The precise minutiae of the Roman street system is not the business of your driver. He is not Google Earth. It is useful to have some reference point for your destination, such as ‘100m from the Pantheon, which is a large ancient building near the Senate’ or ‘It doesn’t matter if you can’t find it, I’m happy to walk’ . But don’t worry, your driver can read a map while driving, talking to his wife on the mobile ‘phone and snatching a crafty cigarette.

At the conclusion of your journey read the amount on the meter and courteously offer your driver that sum. This is the opening point of the negotiations. Why were you unaware that there is a supplement after 3pm on alternate weekdays? Your baggage took up space in the car, didn’t it? Your driver does not carry change; he is not the Banca di Roma.

Treat your driver with respect and he will serve you right.

11 June, 2010

Obama and us

Here are some things we know about Barack Obama.
1. He has family in Kenya.

2. His father was around at the time of the Mau Mau rebellion, brutally put down by the British

3. One of the first things he did on arriving at the White House was to return to Britain a bust of Winston Churchill

4. When the previous British Prime Minister visited he offered as a gift some DVDs (playable only on American systems)

5. He is now hysterical about BP

Viewed in isolation these things may seem normal. The business of the statue seemed at the time simply extraordinarily insensitive. Churchill is revered in Britain and also by many in America. He could have transferred it to an attic, as one does with Granny’s painting. A gaffe, perhaps.

The DVD matter was seen in Britain against the backdrop of Brown being one of the most unpopular politicians we have ever had. But he went there as the British Prime Minister and deserved to be treated, as Britain deserves to be treated, with respect.

Now BP. Obama is tremendously unpopular at home and seemed to want to make this oil spill a personal cause, particularly given the unpopularity George Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina. But it has gone out of control. Scarcely a day goes by without Obama making some impertinent remark (it is none of the President’s business who the BP shareholders choose to have as their Chief Executive). He seems to have spent more time on the oil damaged beaches than in the White House. Even though it has not styled itself ‘British Petroleum’ for some years, Obama uses that formula to lay it on that it is the evil Brits at fault, even though the drilling company and the regulator were American.

Now Obama has mouthed off about whether he can stop BP paying a dividend.

All in all I think we can only take this one way. America has had Presidents with whom we have enjoyed a ‘special relationship’ and Presidents who haven’t really cared. Now, for the first time since Suez, we have one with an open and visceral hatred of Britain.

There will be results from this. The new British Prime Minister will, I think, be forced, in a ‘phone call over the weekend, to tell the President to get off BP’s back. Otherwise Cameron will look weak, which he can’t afford to do. But our relationship, special or otherwise, goes further than BP. Afghanistan. Trident, where we virtually allow America to keep the keys. International Finance and the G8. The huge new embassy the Americans are hoping to build in London.

And if this unpopular, spiteful, Britain hating man is re-elected, this is going to carry on for years. Time for openness and a bit of hardball, Mr Cameron.

Holidaying in Italy (2): Travel Tips

Buses. Some people have the courage to travel on Italian buses, and some may even be exhilarated by the kidney shaking, centrifugally lurching ride they offer. You are not one of them. If you must travel on a bus, you are expected to enter through the door marked ‘no entry’. Do not set yourself up for ridicule from your fellow passengers by buying and stamping a ticket. If you are fortunate enough to get a seat never give it up to someone less fortunate because this causes fights.

At the station: on some trains you have to book a seat, on others you don’t. Don’t expect the station staff to interrupt their busy day explaining. Don’t expect them to know which platform the train is leaving from, that’s your job. There is a timetable but you cannot have a copy because they have recently run out. Anyway why publish a timetable if the trains are going to be late?

Air Travel: flying Alitalia is regarded by some as a sport and by others as contributory negligence. You’re on holiday, so you’ve plenty of time to spare if the plane is late either taking off or landing. And what business is it of theirs where your baggage is?

Hire cars: the law requires you to carry the original document for the car at all times. The hire company will only give you a photocopy, so you are a criminal as soon as you set off. Don’t worry. Take a walk on the wild side. There are bigger horrors than this ahead of you.

Driving: Drive as the Italians do: repeat continuously ‘I am the only person on the road’. If you have an accident show equal outrage to the other party. The driver with the nicer car or more attractive girlfriend is innocent.

Michael Schumacher cuts corners, drives at high speed inches from the car in front, pulls sharply in front of other drivers, starts when the lights are red and doesn’t use indicators. Same with all good drivers.

All Italian cars are equipped with a handy mirror to get your hairstyle right while you are driving.

Holidaying in Italy

The tourist season is upon us and I am pleased to offer my guide to holidaying in one of the world's great tourist destinations..

Internet Access. Don’t be daft. Did the Emperor Tiberius have the internet? Did Bernini have WiFi access? This is Italy, not South Korea.

Everyone knows when the public holidays are, so there’s no need to publicise them. Everyone, that is, except you.

Italians do not work during August, which starts on July 15th and ends on September 15th.

Why would a restaurant open during the holiday period if the favoured customers are away?

Churches, shops and supermarkets close for lunch, usually between 1pm and 5pm. During this period have lunch yourself; if you can’t eat for four hours, do your best.

Your restaurant may have dispensed with the menu and the waiter will deliver a list of what is available in a broad Pugliese dialect. This is a test of courage designed for foreigners. Simply at some stage raise your finger and you will get whatever was where his monologue stopped. It is the best way to enjoy sheep’s intestines, which you would not otherwise have ordered.

Don’t expect to receive the same food as the regular customers.

Just because the hotel says it is air conditioned doesn’t mean they are prepared to turn it on. It's only 35C, for Heaven's sake, still cool.

You enjoy swimming. Italians enjoy posing by the pool in skimpy trunks and sunglasses and occasionally jumping in to splash you. Try to fit in.

Do not have your photograph taken with a gladiator outside the Colosseum or have your portrait done in the Piazza Navona. Both will leave you severely out of pocket and your friends will laugh.

Always eat some distance from the main tourist points, unless you are doing a survey on imaginative food pricing.

Never ask a policeman for directions. They are all from South of Naples.

It is a criminal offence both to buy and to sell fake watches, handbags etc. You are easier to arrest than a wiry Senegalese sprinter.

If you wear shorts, eat in the open and have no sunglasses they will know you are a tourist and treat you accordingly.

Black girls standing by the roadside are not there as tourist advisers.

Life without the internet

48 hours without the internet and life grinds to a halt, making you dependent in internet cafés and friends.

To all my British friends who think BT is dreadful I advise you to live a while with Telecom Italia. When for no apparent reason service simply disappears they order you not to call back again for four days. If you do they say 'But you just called last Wednesday!' as if internet access were a gift you should be thankful for, rather than something for which you have paid. It is the policy not to let you know what is wrong so you just have to sit there fuming.


09 June, 2010

Where to cut

The Canadians, we are constantly reminded, reduced Government expenditure by 20%, without serious social unrest. Since then there has been a trail of Tory strategists and philosophers to find out how they did it; and the answer has been ‘take the people with you’.

This has been the thrust of recent speeches by Cameron and Osborne, who yesterday called for the nation’s ‘brightest and best’ brains to offer suggestions.

I rather think that more than the nation’s brightest and best brains are required here so even I shall be offering suggestions. But in the meantime we have Simon Heffer in the Daily Telegraph to consider.

Heffer, from humble Essex origins, portrays himself as the highest of high Tories, although the result is more a permanently indignant Lady Bracknell. Think ‘outraged bluster’ and you are in tune for one of his articles. Heffer believes in nothing so base as consulting the brightest and best – the Government should just get on with it. And I think here the example of Prime Minister Edward Heath is significant. 1974 was the last serious occasion a Government put itself before the electorate with a detailed question; ‘Who governs Britain?’ Heath asked. It was the first time I voted and I remember clearly feeling ‘if you don’t know the answer to that you shouldn’t be in power’.

But I rather think Cameron is right here. A great deal of cutting has to be done, and it has to be done before the Government will be able to talk people out of their entitlement philosophy; that will take a generation. People are going to suffer a fair bit, and feel they are suffering a whole lot more.

Politically if Cameron can get a debate going it will be very advantageous. It will enforce his position as leader with the others following. It will silence the LibDems from saying something was a cut too far, and if they do would enable him to call an election, his position reinforced by the popular mood that cuts will come.

He may fail, as Labour’s ‘Big Conversation’ failed, but he should try.

For me the cuts should be gentle and continuous, such as not indexing tax thresholds for inflation, freezing public sector pay, welfare entitlements and pensions.

Trident will obviously figure large in the debate. It costs a fantastic sum, but against that is an international political badge of honour. Several countries in the next few years will be insisting on a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations – Brazil, India, perhaps the Pacific nations led by Japan and Australia. Without a nuclear weapon we would be grouped as one seat with France or Europe. France will not give up its force de frappe so we would be the junior partner.

What I think we have to do about Trident is to show that there is no alternative. I, not being an expert, find it hard to believe that our needs wouldn’t be covered by a smaller, battlefield type nuclear weapon, and imagine this would be cheaper. Would it? I don’t know: perhaps Trident with its nuclear submarine force is the cheapest option. In that case it has to be explained.

Lastly I think all this is not enough. The government overspend, the excess of expenditure over its revenues, is £160 billion a year, every year. The Government has to get out completely of some of the things it is doing. In Health, Education, Transport, Military expenditure, pensions, a whole host of areas, the door must be opened and a little private sector light shone in.

..et vale

Marvin Isley, of the Isley Brothers

08 June, 2010


Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Schumann

07 June, 2010

Thatcher: the tiresome truth

John McDonnell, who is standing for the leadership of the Labour Party, and has already garnered the support of 10 MPs, has said that if he returned to the 1980s he would assassinate Margaret Thatcher.

Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, has said that there will be no Margaret Thatcher style cuts under this coalition.

I rather think both of these characters have returned to the 1980s. As I pointed out here, there were, regrettably for these two, no cuts. None. Spending went up year after year after year. It always has done.

It won't now, Mr Clegg, and it wouldn't have done either, Mr McDonell, if Labour had got in. The money, to quote another leftie idiot, has all gone.

A new tradition?

It is reported that one of Gordon Brown's last acts as Prime Minister was to reduce the Prime Ministerial salary (ie his successor's salary) from £194,000 to £150,000, but that he did so in secret. When David Cameron arrived one of his first acts was to order a 5% paycut for ministers, not realising he had already been hit with a 22% reduction.

I rather think this should develop into a tradition, one of those unwritten elements in our constitution, that the outgoing PM leaves a few nasty surprises for his successor - the mouldy prawns sewn into the curtains, the putrifying piece of meat behind the sofa.

And of course a pay cut. Spices things up.

03 June, 2010

Cumbria and Dunblane

The recent events in Cumbria have inevitably led to comparisons with the Dunblane massacre of 1996, when Thomas Hamilton murdered sixteen children and one of their teachers.

After Dunblane the Commons select committee concluded that a ban on handguns would serve no useful purpose, but following pressure from a group of the bereaved mawkishly called 'The Snowdrop Alliance' our new touchy feely Prime Minister, Tony Blair, as one of his first acts on being elected in 1997, called for and got a ban on people owning pistols (the word 'handguns' entered the language at this time).

Derek Bird in Cumbria, Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane and Michael Ryan in Hungerford in 1987 all held their weapons legally. I can accept that there is a case for closer analysis of the people who own guns, although friends tell me that the current regulations are already draconian. In one case Police arrived unannounced at a man's home while he was out, and demanded that his wife tell them where the key to the shotgun cabinet was held. When she told them they withdrew her husband's licence because he had told someone where the key was.

Inevitably there are renewed calls for further restrictions on gun ownership. Even now the British Pistol Shooting Team have to practise abroad and further restrictions would presumably mean arresting foreign teams at the Olympic Games in London. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has wisely resisted calls for changes to the law.

She should continue to do so. We have to accept that we cannot protect ourselves agaisnt any eventuality. Next time it will be carving knives or garden shears. These tragedies, quite simply, happen.

The World Cup

First in an occasional series of 5,486 posts.

The World Cup starts on 11th June, so only 8 breath holding days left to go.

This blog would like a final between England and Italy, or failing that between North and South Korea, a lively match, but expects it will be between Spain and Brazil.

The British are sending 23 players, which puts us in with a chance if the others are decent enough only to field the usual 11. The team is reported to have arrived in South Africa, to be greeted by a traditional African welcome.

Presumably a request for bilateral aid.

02 June, 2010

Israel and Gaza 2

We seem to have learned a little more since Monday morning but not everything.

1. It seems clear that the principal aim of the 'peace flotilla' was publicity, not delivering aid.

2. The Israelis were clearly wrong to make the interception in international waters.

3. There is no dispute that Israel has the right to ensure that goods coming in to Gaza are not weapons.

4. The Israeli restrictions seem to include building materials, which seems harsh.

After that, the debate descends to discussion of 'proportionality': that they shouldn't have used so much force. I don't know about you, but if someone, Iceland, say, decides to invade Britain, I want the **** kicked out of them. I don't want us to send the Women's Army Band, armed only with blanks in case someone is hurt. The full caboodle, if you please.

No, what does it for me with this convoy business is the fact that it took place in international waters. I don't know if it was a cock-up by the Israelis, but these people, ghastly though they may be, have every right to protest outside Israel.


Fancy yourself as an international investor? Which would you have bet on, the resignation of the President of Germany, of the Prime Minister of Japan or the Prime Minister of Thailand, which has all but descended into civil war?

I'm sure you guessed it: it's goodbye to Horst Koehler, goodbye to Yukio Hatoyama and well done Abhisit Vejjajiva for surviving a vote of no confidence.

Public Sector Pay

David Cameron has insisted on the publication of the salaries of public sector workers who earn more than, ahem, the Prime Minister.

So now we know that the head of the Office for Fair Trading gets £280,000 a year.

The question is, how much wiser are we?

Plenty of people earn more than the Prime Minister’s £150,000 or so – footballers, musicians, junior securities traders - but is it a relevant comparison? The National Health Service, for example, is one of the largest employers in the world. If someone has to be tempted out of a lucrative private sector job to run it, that’s OK with me. If however someone gets the job on Buggins’ turn, that we don’t need a top guy running it, I don’t think he should get the same as the Chairman of BP.

What seems to me to be important is that the government regularly reassesses how much individual people get from the taxpayer, and that we look at how much pay has risen (quite a lot in recent years).

I need to feel confident in that process, that money isn’t being frittered away in a sort of back scratching club, but I don’t feel I need to know the numbers.

Italy takes the day off

Republic Day in Italy.

The Republic was formed on 2nd June, 1946 following a referendum.

In these 64 years there have been 61 governments. Still, it works, after a fashion.

Forza Italia!