30 January, 2011

Sunday Thinkpiece: interference

‘It is not for us to interfere’, I wrote at the end of a post on Egypt, but of course that is not how everyone will see it. There is a certain type of politician who sees interference in other countries’ troubles as quite acceptable. Tony Blair was one such, and indeed often said he saw it as his moral duty. A bit patronising, but he’s not alone. So what will be going on in the emergency committees of the Great Powers (Britain’s committee goes by the spy-thriller name of COBRA, which stands for the more mundane Cabinet Office Briefing Room A)?

There is an interesting parallel between the Second Gulf War and the Vietnam War. Both left the public slightly sickened at what military intervention could do, and both left the public depressed at what interference could not do. There was the feeling that an inordinate amount of damage had been caused and we lost; either one of those might be acceptable, but not both. I exclude the First Gulf War because its purpose was to rescue an ally from invasion and it succeeded in that (I personally had grave doubts, believing that we went in to rescue the al-Sabah family rather than the people of Kuwait, and still wonder if they were worth rescuing).

But the Vietnam War and the Second Gulf War left the West in the position that no further international adventures would be tolerated by its people (at least not for a while). Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron, representing the great Western military powers, know that whatever they think personally, it will all have to be done by the book. ‘Soft Power’ would be best.

The Maghreb is going through one of its periodic transformations, as serious for its people, in my view, as the decline of the Roman Empire and the takeover of the forces of Islam in the 7th century. In more recent times the area went from colonial subjugation to government by the anti-colonial rebels, and now these partisans are old and corrupt and are having the reins taken from them. The problem is we don’t know by whom or what.

Some decry the domino theory, that this is spreading across the region, but I do not. The almost simultaneous popular uprisings and the access to new media threaten a new phenomenon. Executing a coup d’état on Facebook is, if nothing else, something new. Demographics play a part: The Arab World numbers around 300 million, around the population of America, or of the five largest European countries. But of those, 200 million are under 24 - two thirds, against around one third in America and less in Europe. The struggles for independence in the 1950s and 1960s are far, far away for most people. They are better educated, richer and want something better for themselves.

Our emergency committee will note all this and try to plot the direction of travel. In the 1950s, when a change in government in Egypt caused the nationalisation of the Suez canal and another failed intervention, the fear was that the new rulers would go over to Russia. Now the fear is that they will go over to militant Islam.

But does it matter? They will see it like this: firstly all these countries are already Muslim. It’s just a question of how Muslim. Morocco has a young king and may well not be a party to this. Algeria is a hotbed of Islamic militancy and is a risk. But against that its gas stocks are running out and it will see declining income over the next five years. It is not another Iran with almost infinite supplies. Libya is already ruled by an unreliable character and is already not a dependable ally. Tunisia is too small to make any difference. Egypt, by contrast, has a population of 80 million, and governs the Suez Canal and the SUMED pipeline, between them transporting around 2m barrels of oil a day (global demand is around 90m b/d). But there are alternative routes for this oil, albeit 6,000 miles longer. And why should a new government of any complexion cut itself off from this revenue?

Our committee will conclude that there is no case for intervention, and scarcely any for even soft interference. All the West has to do is to make sure China doesn’t interfere (Russia, being a net exporter of energy, won’t mind the odd competitor imploding). Let them get on with it. Let’s hope that's the conclusion. anyway

29 January, 2011

The Titian position

This from the BBC:

A 450-year-old Madonna and Child work by Titian has sold for $16.9m (£10.7m) in New York, setting a new auction record for the Renaissance master.

A Sacra Conversazione: The Madonna and Child with Saints Luke and Catherine of Alexandria was sold at Sotheby's to a European telephone bidder.

It beat the previous Titian auction record of £7.5m ($11.9m) paid at Christie's in London in December 1991.

Ring any bells? I reported back in August 2008 that The Duke of Sutherland had offered the nation a pair of Titians. The first would be £50 million and if we bought that we could have the other for another £50m. Apparently we have raised the money for the first and are now saving up for the second. I hadn't realised that this was nearly seven times the highest price then paid for a Titian and even now nearly five times the highest price. In fact, looking back through the newspaper archives, nothing was said about that at all.

The Duke of Sutherland said they would fetch five times his price at auction (although he would, wouldn't he?), that is to say they would each fetch 33 times the highest price ever paid for that artist.

Now, I am no art market expert, but my rat odour detector is beginning to flash.

And what is all this 'saved for the nation' stuff? The picture (both, if we can afford them) will be on display in Edinburgh and as I said at the time it would cost someone in, say, Wales, no less to see them than if they were in the Guggenheim in New York.

So who accepted this £50m figure?

That smell? A rat, surely? A perceptible rat.


I remember once remarking to a Cairanese taxi driver that there seemed to be a lot of police about. He said yes, but there are even more that you can’t see. Hosni Mubarak, who came to power after the assassination of Sadat, has kept a tight grip on things these 30 years. I wonder what he is thinking now.

Cairo has a population of around 8m, but the same number again come into the centre each day, working or looking for work, making the city a hotbed of talk, rumour and now violence. Nevertheless, the number involved in the demonstrations is in the tens of thousands, a tiny percentage of the population, and the number killed is a lower percentage than when the police opened fire at Kent State University forty years ago (Hillary Clinton please note, before mouthing off again about police violence). Mubarak, who was Vice President to Sadat for 6 years and before that Commander of the Airforce, is not a man of the people and will be wondering if all this will soon blow over. In this, I think, he is wrong.

As I write, we learn that Mubarak has dismissed his cabinet. He will feel that he has been let down by others; dictators always feel that. Has it spread from Tunisia? We read in the Daily Telegraph this morning that all this has been encouraged by the USA. To be double crossed after turning a blind eye to all that rendition business! And after his help in the Gulf War!

But eventually Mubarak will see that it wasn’t the cabinet the people were complaining about; that the crowd of demonstrators was growing and they were not Americans, but Egyptians; that they are burning pictures of him, and demanding that his son Gamal doesn’t take over after him.

In short, they are demanding change, and some time, maybe even this week, Mubarak will see this and go. What he will leave we can only guess. It is not for us to interfere, but we must watch it carefully, and hope.

28 January, 2011

Bad luck

This blog's congratulations to Nelson Mandela, who, despite being detained in hospital for a couple of days, has not died.

You could almost taste the disappointment of the 24hrs news media, who had to concentrate on more difficult things, like North Africa and the British education system.

27 January, 2011

The Holocaust

Today is of course the anniversary of the freeing by Russian soldiers of the survivors of Auschwitz and is observed in many countries as Holocaust Memorial Day.

Of course at the time, in 1945, the Russian Gulags were already open and many more would be built; not long afterwards millions died in China for a belief no more defensible than antisemitism; persecution of religious and tribal minorities still goes on in Africa, and we have had ethnic cleansing as close as the Balkans.

Holocaust Memorial Day is important to some, but there is no practical value to it; it has not brought an end to these horrors and nor will it ever. It is an opportunity for smug politicians to make worthy speeches. You can read them in the papers tomorrow. I shan't.

Ship of Fools

A strange tale to tell. In 1983 the people of West Belfast, which is part of the United Kingdom but scarcely part of the real world, elected as their MP one Gerard Adams, a terrorist.

Adams did not take up his seat in Parliament, not believing that West Belfast was subject to Her Majesty the Queen but, hypocritically, accepted an office and staff allowances.

Now he has decided to leave, indeed quit the country, and try for election in the Irish Republic later this year. I don’t suppose it matters very much to his constituents, who haven’t been represented in Parliament anyway.

But there is a problem. The only way an MP may resign is by taking an office for profit under the Crown, which of course Mr Adams does not want. He sent a notice of resignation to the Speaker of the House of Commons and thought that was that. Now the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that he has been appointed to such an office, the Prime Minister has announced it in Parliament and Mr Adams says he has accepted no such thing.

Now, I am all for a bit if intrigue, a bit of political point scoring, and have no truck with Mr Adams who, as I say, is or was a terrorist, but all this is daft. It is like children bringing some abstruse rule of their sport to catch out someone with less detailed knowledge. It makes Britain look daft.

Here is what I propose:

- if you don’t take up your seat in Westminster within a certain time (and taking up your seat involves the oath of loyalty to the Queen) you can’t have an office or expenses and a by-election must be held so the constituents can confirm they don’t want to be represented at all.

- If you want to leave office just write a letter and there will be a by-election.

Many in the House of Commons – and this seems to include the Prime Minister - are cackling with delight at this confusion. They shouldn’t be. It makes us all look like fools.

The hand that feeds them

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports on a survey carried out for it on Germans and how they regard the EU.

67% had little or no trust in the EU.

Only 12% favour faster integration

68% have little or no trust in the single currency.

These responses are at almost British levels of euroscepticism. It is only one opinion poll but it shows increasing intolerance, and this will surely become a feature of the German political scene. There is a string of regional elections in Germany due this year and we shall be watching them closely.

If Germans come to see the EU in black and white terms, as hard working Germany bailing out idle Mediterranean countries, there may come a time soon when Angela Merkel will be faced with a choice: the bailout programme or re-election.

24 January, 2011


Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister, has asked police to investigate whether his phone was hacked while he was Chancellor, joining Sienna Miller and several others. Soon it will be the turn of the ‘C’ list celebrities and you won’t be able to get on a reality TV show unless you can claim the News of the World had got into your ‘phone.

Perhaps we are not being told something, but I think it is worthwhile recalling exactly what is alleged to have gone on. Phones have voicemail, what we used to call an answerphone, so if you don’t answer a call – let’s say you are asleep – the caller can leave a message. These messages are accessed by the owner of the phone, even from another phone, by entering in a 4-digit number. The phone manufacturer usually sets this as 0000 or 1234 and you can change it to your choice, but most people don’t bother. The guilty reporters are said to have called a number at a time when it wouldn’t be answered, and guessing the 4-digit code to access the voicemail. Technically this isn’t hacking but let that pass.

So what we are being asked to believe is that despite there being all night staff at the Treasury, the controller of the nation’s finances simply doesn’t answer his phone if he is in a meeting or asleep. The Governor of the Federal Reserve, not realizing this, leaves a message ‘Hi Gordon, Ben Bernanke here, I wanted to talk about your plans to pour tens of billions into the banking system, which will depress the pound against the dollar’. Gordon has set his voicemail code as 4321, to be clever, but the wily hack guesses this and the story is out.

As I say, it may be we aren’t being told something, but it looks more likely to me that this is a simple case of paranoia.

23 January, 2011

Sunday thinkpiece: setting an example

I remember when some footballer – it might have been Wayne Rooney or it might have been any of a number of others – committed some idiocy or act of unfaithfulness, there being a call for him to ‘set an example’. And I thought ‘why should he, though?’ – here is some uneducated thug with more money than is really good for him who regularly receives the adulation of other uneducated thugs with less money than they’d like. Where in the deal does it say he should be in part responsible for the behaviour of a younger generation? That he should conduct himself in a manner befitting.... what?

But our protestant morality makes us keen to condemn. I once compared imaginary newspaper headlines with an Italian. We came up with

England: John Smith – my three in a bed shame

Italy: Forza Giovanni! Two in one night!

So how should we regard the doings of the famous? Who should be setting an example? Obviously times change: there was a time when a politician getting a divorce would have had to resign, but not now. Let’s take the example of a judge. If his marriage breaks down it is just unfortunate. Surely there is no reason for criticism. Supposing His Lordship indulges himself perfectly legally with a prostitute – aaah!, we are beginning to think, respectable pillar of society sees tart! – but prostitution is legal as long as it does not involve pimping, kerb crawling, keeping a brothel etc. And it would not affect his ability to do his job, as it would if he had been caught with his hands in the till. But we would like him to behave with Victorian propriety, setting an example.

Now politicians. After the recent resignation of Alan Johnson, the shadow chancellor, there was no suggestion he might have behaved better – nor, I think, should there have been. Boris Johnston, the Mayor of London, is said, by the girl in question, to have persuaded her to have an abortion, and, it appears, has fathered a child with another woman while still married. There seems to be no suggestion that this behaviour should disqualify him from office. Should there be? What would disqualify him?

And so, to the inevitable Silvio Berlusconi. Let us suppose for a second that he is not convicted of sleeping with an under age prostitute (by the way, this is an odd law. Prostitution is very common in Italy; is the man supposed to demand a girl’s ID before giving in to her charms? And lumped in with having sexual relations with her is the Clintonesque ‘Palpazione concupiscente’ which means, more or less, heavy petting or groping). Anyway, let’s assume that he is not guilty of that (which would, I have no doubt, be a resignation issue) what has he done?

And yet we all know, at least the press do, but I think the people as well, that he has not been setting an example, that he has let the country down, or as Gianfranco Fini colourfully put it, ‘muddied the good name of Italy’. Why, though? Is it because he was elected to represent his country and his private life must be whiter than white? What about Boris Johnston, elected to represent a city more populous than Switzerland or Ireland?

I think there are two answers. One is that Boris, the cheeky chappie, can look a bit of a victim of circumstance whereas Silvio, the worldly wise self made billionaire, looks as if he is above the rules. And the second is that Berlusconi seems to be a serial performer, creating an overall impression of falling short of the ideal.

Should there be rules as to what a politician can and can’t do? Should they be nuanced, such as (sorry to bring up Clinton again) smoking a joint but not inhaling? I think not. Voters must see things in the round, the overall picture. Churchill is an obvious example: no one complains about his drunkenness, in the light of his having been so magnificent in the war. Perhaps people perceive Boris as a wonderful mayor of London. They will turn a blind eye to his little peccadilloes if he makes a success of the Olympics, as they will to Wayne Rooney as long as he keeps scoring goals.

And Berlusconi? Well, he needs to chalk up a success or two. With that to show off, people will forgive anything. And anyone.

Brian Cowen

One thing which hasn't been said about the resignation of Brian Cowen, the Prime Minister or Taoiseach of Ireland, is that he was the least attractive political leader in the world.

It is a tribute to Cowen that in an age where politicians are expected to be as smooth as game show hosts he got to the top while remaining unashmedly ugly.

22 January, 2011

How is Silvio?

Not too good, if you read the papers. 'Everyone is against him except the United Nations' wrote la Stampa. Even the Pope has weighed in, and I must say, having your morality questioned by someone who was a member of the Hitlerjugend and then turned a blind eye to paedophilia in the Church must leave its mark on a man.

But as so often there is a disparity between what the press thinks and what the public think. In a poll conducted by Ipsos for the University of Milan, whilst 70% did not think he was being persecuted by the courts, they did not intend to punish him at the polls. Most people, it would appear, think there is no realistic alternative to Berlusconi.

But still the stories roll in. The Guardian eagerly quotes Nadia Macrì, who, you will recall, was mentioned in this blog back in November for charging €5,000 to Berlusconi but only €300 to the Minister of Public Administration, as follows:

'after sharing a swimming pool with an allegedly nude prime minister and five or six other girls, she watched as he headed for a room used for massages.

"After a bit, he said: 'Next one. Next one.' And every five minutes we opened the door and had sexual relations. One at a time."

This would be a remarkable performance for any man, let alone a 74 year old. It is probably worth another 100,000 votes to Berlusconi.

21 January, 2011

How the other half live

The Opposition finance spokesman, or Shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson, has resigned. Half the media seems to think it is because he was having an affair with a civil servant, whilst the other half think it is because his wife is having an affair with his bodyguard. Perhaps both are true.

So, where was the bodyguard when....no, let's not go there.

Mr Johnson is 60, and, one would have thought, extremely busy. He does not appear to have resigned out of shame about his marriage, but because he found it difficult worrying about the press. I don't really know whether these people should be setting an example to the nation or not. I rather think that sort of thing went out of the window some years ago, except when talking about Silvio Berlusconi.

Anyway, details of Mr Johnson's private life have been leaked to one of the Sunday papers by an assistant to Ed Balls, Mr Johnson's replacement. Happy days.

19 January, 2011

Booze and bad behaviour

The British Government is about to impose minimum pricing for alcohol, with the result that a bottle of wine will cost at least £2.10 (€2.50) and a bottle of spirits at least £11.40 (€13.70). This idea is very wrong, and in a number of respects.

They say it is targeted at the 25% of people who drink more than the Government guidelines, a group amongst which I number myself. It’s not, though. It’s targeted at poor people; people who don’t fit into the social category of our rulers and therefore need to be controlled. Poor people sometimes want to get drunk.

This is a tax on behaviour the political class doesn’t approve of. Now, in my opinion, the State has no business regulating behaviour. We did not elect it for that.

I might mention in passing that this is not a good time to be taxing poor people.

The economist and statistician Sir Robert Giffen identified what has become known as the Giffen good. This is a good for which demand can rise as the price rises, a reversal of the traditional demand and supply equation. An example used is the price of bread for a poor family. Because of a rise in the bread price, the family has less disposable cash, and so cuts down on the more expensive things – meat, cakes etc, and makes up for the loss of food by buying more bread, still the cheapest thing on the shopping list.

For a poor family used to heavy drinking, alcohol can be a Giffen good. Following this discriminatory price rise they could well be drinking the same, cutting back on other things, or more.

Lastly, as I have said before, we shall begin to solve the problem of alcohol induced loutishness once we realise that it has nothing to do with price. Here in Italy, where wine costs a third of these levels and spirits a half, there is nothing like the problem that exists in the UK. This problem stems from the collapse of the family and the normative moral relativism encouraged by bien pensant liberals – the idea that there is no moral standard by which to judge others and so we should not judge them. Or as my grandparents would have put it, there is no sense of shame.

The problem, and I accept that there is a problem, has everything to do with social liberalism and nothing to do with the price of lager. We should either let people behave as they like - which may be preferable - or we should teach them how to behave, not punish them when they don't.

18 January, 2011

Italian Economics explained

A letter to the Financial Times

Sir, Italians love their friends and relatives but do not trust other Italians. This is why they save a lot and their private affluence is so high (as described by Rachel Sanderson in “Wealth of the nation is a private matter”, December 23). There are, however, four corollaries.
One, Italians do not invest in their enterprises, which remain small.

Two, those who can (mainly the self-employed) do not pay taxes.

Three, they do not care about value for (tax) money (and elect politicians who care even less).

Four, they manage to export enough to pay the oil bill, despite the small size of their enterprises. Of course, points two and three build up in public debt.

In the short term this may protect the country from financial shocks. Is it sustainable in the long run? According to most economists it is not. Italians do not have the technology (because of point one) and the level of education (because of two and three) to compete in the global arena. However, point four is a puzzle. Does an economic talent exist that does not depend on technology and education? If it does, Italians may continue to enjoy their “amoral familism” for some time yet.

Sergio Lugaresi,

Rome, Italy

17 January, 2011


Anyone who uses the service will know that it was Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary last week. I have been using it almost since the day it began and have found it most useful. And it is getting better and better. And it’s free.

There is only one criticism I have heard, exemplified by this mean spirited little article in the Guardian

Still, it's more fun than Wikipedia, which celebrates its 10th anniversary today. Like many 10-year-olds, its grip on reality isn't strong. I once read my own Wikipedia page....

Yes, it is the self-important who find it unsatisfactory. The celebrity broadcaster Jeremy Paxman once made a huge to do about something inaccurate on his page, and it turned into such a snivelling fuss that people were queuing up to alter the page and make it even funnier.

Wikipedia is updated by humans and there are mistakes. But most articles are referenced and you can use it as the start of a piece of research. Most of us who are not self-worshipping luvvies find it excellent.

What Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, needs to do next is create a separate Luvvypedia or Wikiluvvy so these people can read about themselves to their hearts’ content without using up the bandwidth.

16 January, 2011

Sunday Thinkpiece: The lessons of Tucson

To many of us outside the USA it seems that mass shootings are a common occurrence there, and we found it a bit of a surprise that the most recent one, in Tucson Arizona, should achieve such notoriety. Anything which can capture the American media for a week has to be exceptional.

Perhaps a Democratic congresswoman being severely injured has raised the temperature a bit, and it is indeed a time of overheated political debate, as the electorate reconsiders its views on Obama, and mulls over the media successes of the new right Tea Party movement. Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish and in favour of abortion and these two aspects have received a lot of media coverage, largely to no conclusion.

In truth we know very little about the motives of Jared Lee Loughner, who seems, if not deranged, a bit odd, a loner, perhaps the sort of chap you wouldn’t mind knowing but wouldn’t want owning a gun. As to his politics he has said that he is equally interested by the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf (anyone who says either of these books is interesting simply hasn’t read them).

Gun control, or lack of it, is what the foreigners say, and indeed Arizona has some of the laxest gun laws of any state. Loughner’s pistol had an extended magazine, of the sort which would have been illegal in the USA if they hadn’t relaxed the restrictions on assault weapons in 2004. He bought the ammunition in Walmart.

Most non-Americans cannot understand why gun ownership should be called ‘the right to bear arms’, a romantic euphemism which seems to muddy the waters of reality, and why it should be so loosely regulated. I must admit myself, amid brief flashes of understanding, to finding it a bit confusing. The aim of the Second Amendment was to make everyone equal, as a tool against tyranny so it wasn’t just the ruling class which had the guns. Malcolm X’s Black Power Movement raged against gun control, advising its followers to grab a gun before it was only the police which had them. I remember hearing a Texan say he kept a gun in case the Federal Government staged an unconstitutional coup. It is unimagineable that any politician would have the courage to regulate gun ownership. Americans have to live with it.

The current media fad, led by the liberal leaning New York Times, is to blame it on Sarah Palin. It seems that Ms Palin put out publicity on target seats they could win (does the word ‘target’ make you itch for an automatic weapon? Thought not) with these seats marked by the crosshairs of a gun sight. It seems also that one of her favourite phrases is ‘don’t retreat – reload’. The idea that these words might spur even an idiosyncratic young man to homicidal violence seems quite absurd.

But that didn’t stop President Obama, in an otherwise good speech, from suggesting a toning down of the language of politics, a rather cheap de haut en bas dig at his opponents from a politician who is on the ropes (and carries the curse of this blog). Obama has clearly forgotten that he himself said ‘when they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun’.

So it wasn’t the dialectical politics of the last century, or the confrontational politics of this one. It was a young loner raging against the machine. Mr. Loughner who, unlike most protagonists of mass violence, did not manage to end his own life, will go through the judicial process and perhaps be executed. Motives will be attributed and discarded and slowly he will be forgotten.

The lesson which will be drawn from Tucson is that there is no lesson to be drawn.

15 January, 2011

The first domino?

In my post of the 12th January I voiced my fears that the unrest on the streets of the Maghreb countries could be the start of something worse. Now we see: the immovable dictator Zine Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia has gone, fled to Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali had been President since 1987, only Tunisia’s second President since independence in 1956.

He had already said he would not stand for re-election but that was not enough.

Tunisia has had growth averaging 5%, and is the most competitive economy in Africa, with the highest per capita income. It has oil and gas and what until last week was thought to be a stable government.

If Ben Ali can fall, so can the others.

14 January, 2011

Clouseau and integration

An interesting little vignette from François Fillon, Prime Minister of France, on a visit to the UK. M. Fillon, who unfortunately looks far too much like Inspector Clouseau, declared roundly that France and Germany 'will do everything, absolutely everything, to save the euro'.

He goes on
“In order to consolidate the euro we will need gradually to harmonise our economic, fiscal and social policies, hence we are going to go towards greater integration

“The question is is the UK ready to accept or encourage greater integration of the eurozone or is the UK distrustful of that and will it create obstacles and make it more difficult to happen?'

It sounded a little bit more of a threat than a plea, but that is the usual language of the integrationists so let it pass.

Britain, as Clouseau also pointed out, has a great interest in this. So assuming we don't wish to join (and the Government could never get a law passed, even if it wanted to), and that we, as the French always do, vote in our national interest on treaty change, where does that interest lie?

In one sense, what kind of a mess these people make in their own stables is a matter for them. But until we can redirect our economy towards the Far East, and away from the moribund 'Old Europe' it is in the interests of our exporters that mainland Europe be economically buoyant. Where Fillon goes wrong is to assume that that is the same as the full political integration which would be required to control the budget deficits of the new sinners (the first countries to breach the guidelines were of course, France, Germany and Italy but we have forgotten that).

But I think it is becoming clear that full integration is not the right road for Europe. It will cause massive political upheaval as those countries with an independent frame of mind dither and horse trade over a treaty change. And someone will always get round it.

The solution to Europe's problems lies either with the weak countries leaving the eurozone or, better, the strong countries leaving it. Europe's best hope is not to hold back the efficient by making them give a blanket guarantee of the inefficient. It is to let the best maximise their performace and help the weakest up that way.

We should say politely to M. Fillon that Britain's long term interest lies in the euro breaking up, and as friends, the best we can do for them is to save them from the insane, one-track minded political class that would prefer poverty to taking a step backwards politically.

We should oppose any treaty which will make Europe poorer.

Digital learning

I read that the UK has the greatest usage of digital blackboards in the world, with some 7 school classes out of 10 boasting the new technology. The equivalent in the US is 4 out of ten, and Canada 3.

The odd thing is I read it in an Italian newspaper, today's Corriere della Sera. I suppose that with an election having taken place last year, the new government doesn't want to give the old one credit for the investment.

Perhaps digital blackboards aren't a very good idea, I don't know, but one gets the feeling the UK isn't too good at blowing its own trumpet.

12 January, 2011

More from the home of the brave

''We don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy, and the French people.'  said President Obama, which will come as a blow to the hundreds of families of those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan so that Tony Blair could be taken seriously in Washington.

We're just going to have to face it: this guy is simply not on our side.

And we, of course, shouldn't be on his.

Trouble in the Maghreb

Some time in the late 1980s while working for a bank I received a visit from a senior member of the entourage of the President of Algeria. They were fearing riots, he said, through the lack of food on the streets, and Islam would benefit from this, as it always did, running like wildfire among the poor and hungry. There would be global implications.

Eventually, using money from we didn't ask where, we began to finance shipments of chickpeas, the local staple. Of course Algeria has massive revenues from gas, but nobody knows quite where the money goes.

Algeria has been rumbling with discontent since then, and now we see it has broken out on to the streets. There have been riots all over the Maghreb, particularly in Egypt and, surprisingly, Tunisia, which is ruled by the iron fist of President Ben Ali. The issue is not yet empty bellies but lack of jobs, for North Africa is dependent on the EU and times have been hard there.

It may be this is temporary or it may be, as I fear, the start of something bigger. These rulers are the last of the old guard, who were activists before independence: Bouteflika of Algeria is 74 this year; Ben Ali of Tunisa has had his 74th, while Mubarak of Egypt is 82.

The question is, who will replace them?

10 January, 2011

Inflation is coming back

An interesting point to note: the Bank of England's pension fund is now nearly 95% invested in index-linked (ie inflation proof) securities.

Perhaps they should have a word with the Monetary Policy Committee.

09 January, 2011

Sunday Thinkpiece: bankers' pay

Well, we’ve just been through the Christmas good will to all men bit and now we are into a new year full, I hope, of misplaced optimism, so I ask you this: has anyone got a good word to say for the bankers?

Ah. This looks like an uphill struggle. But let’s proceed. I used to work in the City of London, mainly financing companies (this creates jobs, as we found out as soon as it stopped happening. But nobody gave me any thanks and I didn’t expect any). Reading what I read in the press, it is as if, at the end of the year, the senior management ‘phoned up and said ‘Look, Tim, we’re awash with cash and we wondered if you could take any more – perhaps a million?’. Unfortunately it wasn’t like that. The job was quite well remunerated, but they paid me as little as they needed to in order to keep me (to the extent that they wanted to keep me).

But banking is well paid, everybody knows that. Why do they pay out so much, though, given that they are trying, like any business, to keep their costs down? The answer is that there’s a shortage of talent. So why don’t those people who whinge about bankers’ earnings give it a try? Take the millions and have a champagne lifestyle – why not? Actually it’s quite difficult, the hours are extremely long, there is no job security and the bonus system means that in the bad years you are likely to get a fair bit less than you were expecting.

I don’t mind anyone who is good at their job earning a lot of money. David Beckham is an example, as are several actors and actresses, musicians and artists. That’s what our system is about – people who are good making it to the top.

Of course people’s views of bankers are coloured by the credit crisis. ‘Their greed brought down the whole system, the ordinary people have to bail them out and now they are paying themselves millions again, of our money.’ That’s the sort of comment which is typical.

I think it is important to deal with this in detail. Firstly it is nonsense to say that the system was (nearly) brought down by bankers’ greed. You can take bankers’ greed as a given fact. ‘Greed is good’ said Gordon Gekko; I would say it is normal. Automobile manufacturers want to make and sell as many cars as they can; architects want to design as many buildings as they can. This isn’t greed, it’s rational behaviour in a modern society. Bankers were hungry for success in the bad times and in the good. When they invented new mortgage products enabling many, many more people to buy their houses, no one complained it was driven by greed.

The system was (nearly) brought down by politicians wanting to look like the architects of the good times. Bill Clinton instructed state controlled mortgage institutions to offer cheap loans to people who had no realistic chance of paying them back. Gordon Brown kept interest rates artificially low and hinted that he had invented permanent boom. Of course bankers recycled this vast pool of cheap cash – they were supposed to.

It is the point about ‘paying themselves with our money’ which nearly hits home. Of course the government has no business telling companies what they can pay their staff – incomes policy is regarded by economists on both left and right as having been a serious error. But shareholders have the right to decide what their employees earn and having poured our cash into the banks, the government is now a shareholder in several. So should the British Government limit the earnings of staff at Lloyds, or Royal Bank of Scotland? The problem is that the other big banks, Barclays and HSBC, didn’t take the taxpayers’ cash, so they would be able to mop up the best employees from the ones who did, these employees jumping ship, naturally wanting to avoid limitations to their salaries.

So to keep their best staff, even the nationalised banks have to pay the going rate. And if they don’t have the best staff they will earn lower profits and be worth a lot less when the taxpayer wants to sell.

So the government then descended to pleading with the banks to reduce their bonuses, particularly for Chief Executives to set an example. Here is what happened

Lloyds (Eric Daniels) 2007 £1.8m waived 2008 and 2009

Barclays (John Varley) 2007 £2m waived 2008 and 2009

Barclays (Bob Diamond) 2007 £17.9m waived 2008 and 2009

RBS (Stephen Hester) waived 2009

HSBC (Michael Geoghan) 2007 £1.9m waived 2008 donated £4m 2009 to charity

So it looks as if a few men may have given away something in the region of £50m. And where was the chorus of thanks? There wasn’t one. To the left and to the ignorant they’re still pariahs.

So this year they are forecasting a bonanza. Remuneration committees (bank directors don’t pay themselves, another popular misconception) will give them what the market thinks they are worth. It will be a lot.

08 January, 2011

Europe worse than Iraq

Further to my post a couple of days back where the propaganda from the European Commission claimed a success in '“Securing a sound economy and stronger financial markets", the latest quarterly report from the Data Services company CMA arrives over the airwaves.

Of the ten most risky state borrowers in the world, as measured by the cost of insuring their debt against default, four are in the eurozone: Greece (which slips into the No1 spot ahead of Venezuela, whose President is mad), Portugal, Ireland and Spain. In addition Hungary, which holds the rotating EU Presidency (as opposed to the permanent President, Rumpy, who is Belgian, and the President of the Commission, Barroso, who is Portuguese) slips in at No.9, the ninth worst international sovereign credit risk. Iraq is tenth.

The inability of any eurozone statesman, particularly Chancellor Merkel, to make any kind of decision, means things are going from bad to worse.

The reason for this is that the eurozone is a political construct, not an economic one, and they can't bring themselves to believe that it is a disaster, which is gradually impoverishing the people of Europe. At the moment all they are doing is lending these countries more money, which is not the solution to overindebtedness. They are wishing the whole thing would go away so they can get back to enjoying their lunches and their pousse-café in peace.

But it won't go away; it will get worse.

I have said it before but it is worth repeating.They have three choices: take control of the fiscal side of each member (politically unacceptable to the members), allow member states to go bust while in the euro, or allow them to leave. These last two are politically unacceptable to the bureaucrats, and this is why they told the lie (there is no other word for a statement made in the knowledge that it was untrue and with intent to deceive) that they were “Securing a sound economy and stronger financial markets". 

I repeat, if they don't do something, this will get worse in 2011

07 January, 2011

England's cricketers

Wonderful cricket down under as England win the Ashes series 3-1. England's domination of the series can be seen in this statistic: each side could lose 100 wickets over the 5 matches. Australia lost 91 wickets for an average of 29 runs. England lost 56 wickets for an average of 51 runs.

Cricket fans love statistics. What about this? I hear on the BBC that in three of the matches the final ball was bowled during Radio 4's shipping forecast.

06 January, 2011

What they're doing (to) for you

The European Commission has produced a video entitled 'What has the EU done for you in 2010?' If you have a strong stomach you can watch it on the EU Commission part of the Europa website

Amongst its claims is “Securing a sound economy and stronger financial markets", an inversion of the truth so egregious that most people will find it laughable until they realise they are paying for this Newspeak.

And the sun shone in London over Christmas and Greece is overtaking Germany as the financial powerhouse of Europe.

Freedom of Information

Thanks to Dizzythinks for this. The UK Home Office received the following Freedom of Information request:

Dear Home Office,

my son is in year 9 at school and he has been given homework to find out the top 10 uk crime, we can't find any information and was wondering if you would be able to help us. his homework needs to be handed in on the 4th january. thankyou for taking time to read this.
Yours faithfully,

mrs wright

The Home office said they were unable to give her an answer, which shows that either they didn't approve of her little ruse or.... that they didn't know

05 January, 2011

Gerry Rafferty

Farewell to the great singer / songwriter, Gerry Rafferty

03 January, 2011

Football and free lunches

FIFA. Federation Internationale de Football Association (and I’d still like someone to explain why it has a French name) goes from bad to worse. You will remember that two of its executive committee members were found to have sold their vote on the location of the world cup, and in a huff the committee decided not to award it to England, where the investigation had begun.

Now the FIFA President Sepp Blatter has decided on the creation of an anti-corruption committee to monitor the executive committee.

I suppose it is impossible to explain to a professional freeloader like Blatter that what is needed to cure the public’s lack of confidence in his executive committee is not another committee with buildings, free first class flights, secretariats, press secretaries, spin doctors and decent lunches.

It is, quite simply, less corruption.

And less Blatter.

Northern Ireland Water

Anyone who goes to Northern Ireland will know that it is always raining. It seems scarcely credible, therefore, that thousands of people in the Province have been without water for weeks, as Northern Ireland Water failed to supply them.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve a Department of Sanitation which can at least supply the sort of service you might find in Egypt or Nigeria, and should give consideration to this at the next elections.

As to the water company itself it has become a sort of subsidised care home for the worthy but inept. It shuold have been sold off years ago, in which case either the water supply would have been maintained because the regulator would have overseen the investment levels, or the state coffers would be swelling with massive fines imposed on a Utlilities Company.

Resignations, please, beginning with the minister and the chairman of the water company.

Ford Open Prison

I don’t like public enquiries, mainly because they are expensive and only tell the public what the person who set up the enquiry wanted them to hear. But I believe we must have one in respect of the burning down of Ford Open Prison.

I was once told that the inmates of Ford were so posh that they held a special lunch for Old Etonians on 4th June.

We are told alcohol was to blame (we’re quite often told that). Well, I must say I’ve been on the odd five-star tooty myself, but never burned down a municipal building. What were they on? Vintage Krug? Or did they distil their own hooch?

The reason we need an enquiry is that the public genuinely don’t understand how this happened. The security which keeps people in should keep people out. How is it that prisoners have access to alcohol (or drugs, for that matter)?

Some say the prison officers turn a blind eye because a comatose prisoner causes no trouble. Whatever the truth, someone must take responsibility for this.

02 January, 2011

Sunday Thinkpiece: the war on drugs

The war on drugs is over, and we were on the losing side. Let us now put aside our weapons, and work out how to manage what will be an uneasy peace.

For a long time there had been talk of drugs, but mainly among the well-to-do, including several members of the Royal Family in the last century. Sherlock Holmes was of course a cocaine addict. But I suppose the war on drugs really started in the 1960s.

Now, half a century later, there are drugs in our prisons, drugs in our schools, drugs on our council estates and drugs on the street being sold to children. Who better to sell them to? Perhaps pushers are the only people investing in our children. ‘Give me a child when he is seven..’ to misquote St Francis Xavier, ‘and I will give you the lifelong addict’.

In America, the war on drugs has cost $1 trillion, that’s a million dollars a million times over, and they are no further forward than we are.

So what, if anything, are we to do? It is obvious that drug use has been increasing, not even staying the same, while we chuck money and the time of the police, courts and prison service into a bottomless pit.

For me, a turning point in my thinking was the passing of the Suicide Act in 1961, making suicide legal. For the first time our bodies were our own. It is why I think the car seatbelts law is wrong: it is perfectly ridiculous that I should be allowed to slit my throat with a carving knife and yet not by going through the windscreen of a car (before you complain, I don’t say it is wrong to wear a seatbelt, just that it is wrong to be made a criminal if you don’t).

For this reason, and the stupidity of fighting a war we can never win, I think drug taking should be legalised. Discouraged, of course, but decriminalised. An addict’s body is his own, not the State’s.

What would be the effect? Most people point to the Netherlands, where pot smoking is allowed in ‘coffee shops’. What is good about it is that the purchase of marijuana is taken out of the hands of the street pusher, who would normally groom a child from marijuana to heroin. Where, however, it is a bad example is that the coffee shops have to buy the weed from the black market, maintaining the criminal connection. Drug use is rising, as are incidences of drug-based gang violence.

A better example is Portugal, where until the turn of the century an astonishing 1% of the population – that’s 100,000 out of ten million – were addicted to illegal drugs. The problem was quite out of control. In 2000, however, a new law decriminalised possession of drugs for personal use. Drugs are still technically illegal, but users are sent for treatment, not to the courts. Essentially the drug problem has been turned from one of criminality to one of public health.

What happened?

There were small increases in illicit drug use among adults, but decreases for adolescents and problem users, such as drug addicts and prisoners.

Drug-related court cases dropped 66 percent.

Drug-related HIV cases dropped 75 percent. In 2002, 49 percent of people with AIDS were addicts; by 2008 that number had fallen to 28 percent.

The number of regular users held steady at less than 3 percent of the population for marijuana and less than 0.3 percent for heroin and cocaine: decriminalisation brought no surge in drug use. The number of people treated for drug addiction rose 20 percent from 2001 to 2008.
(figures courtesy of Associated Press)

Worldwide, some 93 countries offer alternatives to prison for drug use, mainly needle exchanges and the like. The Portuguese go further: their system is not perfect – aspects of the forced treatment leave something to be desired by libertarians – but they have taken a bold step towards doing something sensible: fighting a different war, one they might just win.

The rest of us should follow them.

01 January, 2011

The year that's passed and the year to come

Well, it was quite a year. Aung San Suu Kyi was freed; Liu Xiabao won the Nobel Peace Prize but was not allowed to collect it; Ivory Coast is descending towards civil war.

But the world’s main preoccupation was economic, as we learned how different nations handled the international crisis. On 1st January 2010 I wrote ‘I thought last year that the economic spotlight would fall on Europe and it hasn’t. But I believe it will in 2010.’ I was right this time. By February it was clear Greece would need to be bailed out, and the markets began to ask themselves whether the peripheral countries were European risks or independent risks. This dilemma was made more acute when Ireland’s attempts to rescue its banks failed, and the Eurozone had to bail it out, too. The question remains unanswered.

I had forecast that the Conservatives would have a comfortable victory at the general election in May and of course this turned out to be wrong. I still can’t work out how they managed it: not so much missing an open goal, but an open goal with the other side’s defence trying to help the ball in. I had thought a decisive victory would push the pound up to 1.25 but it ends the year at a bit under 1.17, as the coalition still looks fragile.

Oil, as predicted, spent the year at $75-85 until the recent cold spell in the west pushed it up towards $95; I didn’t think gold would go much further than $1,250 but at the end of the year it was $1,400, the result of continuing uncertainty and poor economic management in Europe and America.

I think oil will edge back over $100 in 2011, but am not keen on gold: barring the occasional hiccup back down to $1,250. We shall see. London stocks put on 8 or 9% in 2010 and will I think have a better year: expect the FTSE to pass 6500.

Obama has had a bad 2010, losing the House. His 2011 will also be bad, as they try to unpick his health reforms.

But it wasn’t all bad: I mentioned that 2010 would see a transfer of wealth and importance to the Far East. Singapore grew at just under 15% last year and might expect double digit growth again in 2011.

All out war between North and South Korea will be avoided, but dreams that the South would take over the North will not materialise: they just can’t afford it, and the rest of the world can’t afford to chip in.

So, more trouble in America, more of the same in the East, and more of the same in Europe: the euro must be saved because it is a political project, but Germany is not prepared, with a string of local elections in 2011, to pay for it. More dithering and inaction is all I can forecast, with the markets questioning Portugal, perhaps Spain, perhaps Belgium. There will be further social unrest at the austerity measures, making life even more difficult.

The prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon still hangs over us. It is at this moment hard to predict the effect on Middle East Politics of Israel’s projected self-sufficiency in energy and of its becoming a net exporter. It is important but it is too early to guess whether it is for better or for worse.

2011 will be difficult, but, I hope happy; and I wish you all the best.

Finally, I predict that the Prime Minister of Italy at the end of 2011 will be..... Silvio Berlusconi.