31 December, 2010

End of the year

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

That's about all we can hope for


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

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

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

Farewell the kroon

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

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

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

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

30 December, 2010

A sop to democracy

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

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

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

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

England retain the Ashes

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

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

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

26 December, 2010

Italy’s education system

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

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

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

25 December, 2010

You didn't know?

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

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

My fault, sorry.

He knows if you've been naughty or nice

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

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


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

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

21 December, 2010

Politicians: the self-importance index

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 December, 2010

The Queen's Head

Er.. no. not the pub.

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

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

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

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

19 December, 2010

Sunday Thinkpiece: Prince Charles

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

Now, unfortunately, you hear it quite a lot.

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

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

Now we have Prince Charles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 December, 2010

Global Warming

From Armstrong and Miller:

Reporting Italy

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

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

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

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

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

15 December, 2010

The importance of students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 December, 2010

Thought for the Day

From Douglas Carswell MP:

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

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

Guys. It's over. "

Silvio survives!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silvio's Big Day

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

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

Apparently it is down to one vote.

PS Silvio survives in the Senate by 162-135

12 December, 2010

Yesterday's upheavals

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

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

Your money in their hands (No.652)

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

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

They should have their money back.

Sunday Thinkpiece: who will save the euro?

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 December, 2010

Thoughts on corruption

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

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

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

At least Silvio uses his own money.

09 December, 2010

UK University Tuition fees explained

This from Nick Robinson, political editor of the BBC:

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

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

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

Hope that's clear.

Olympian freebie

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

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

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

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

08 December, 2010

The way to do it.

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

An ideal system for the European Parliament.

07 December, 2010

On badgers and music and RP

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

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

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

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

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

06 December, 2010

More news from Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

04 December, 2010

Germany and the euro

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

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

The problems of the euro go beyond sovereign default.

03 December, 2010

Unfair competition

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

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


The World Cup (2)

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

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