28 February, 2011

Price of an Oscar

Congratulations to Colin Firth for his 'Best Actor' award. Firth lives just down the road from us, and things could have got a bit ugly in West Umbria if he hadn't won this time.

Congratulations also to the producer who, according to the Financial Times, managed to get £562,000 out of the European Union to encourage distribution outside the UK. With a budget of €11million you would have thought they might have been able to make export sales one of their priorities, without help from the taxpayer.

Still, not to worry, it's not as if there's a recession on.

27 February, 2011

Sunday Thinkpiece: what were you doing on the night...?

What will you be doing on the night of 27th March? It is a month away and you should be making your plans. Will you be out celebrating the crowning of Robert the Bruce in Scotland in 1306? The declaration of the Crimean War in 1854? The surrender of Geronimo in 1886? Or the birthday of singers Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey and Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas?

If so, be careful what you get up to. For 27th March is the day of the decennial census in the UK, and if you return home with someone you have met on your revels make sure before going to bed to record his or her name and ethnic grouping (if you are a bit bleary eyed you can just ask this – ‘are you black, white, Asian or some sort of mixture?’ – it often helps break the ice). For the State wants to know. And the State wants to know if that person usually lives there.

They will know it is a one night stand. And yes, I mean you.

The 1991 census asked 34 questions; the 2001 asked 41 questions; this time there are 14 about the household, 43 about individuals and 4 about visitors. They want to know the address of your employer and how you get to work; whether you have risen to the rank of supervisor. They want to know what sort of qualifications you have, down to ‘O’ levels and GCSEs. They want to know if you can speak English, what your religion is and where you were living last year. Where were you born? How is your health? What is your legal, marital or same sex civil partnership status?

In the 2001 census, 390,127 people registered their religion as Jedi Knight, more than for Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism. Now they don’t just want to know if you are a Jedi Knight, they want to know if you have shacked up with one.

The cost of this Big Brotherfest is put at £500 million (it will be more, of course, things done by Government and involving computers are usually double the estimate). This figure is in part because they are translating it into 56 languages (don’t forget one of the questions is ‘do you speak English’) including, presumably, Jedi. But I am not so worried about that – the Ministry of Defence wastes sums like that on an almost weekly basis.

What I am worried about is why the State wants this information and what they are going to do with it. Why do they want to know whether I am Scottish, a gypsy or Irish traveller (only if white) or ‘mixed White and black Caribbean’? According to the Office of National Statistics, the census ‘provides population statistics from a national to neighbourhood level for government, local authorities, business and communities.’ So all this personal stuff is going to be disseminated far and wide, to businesses and to ‘communities’ (which communities? Do the Jedi community get all this?).

Well, well, we can guess, (cant we?), what sort of person decided what they needed to know, and we can guess with some certainty that they won’t be taking too much care of the information once they have got it.

I rather think we should call a halt to this.

25 February, 2011

But what should we do?

The news from Libya is good. I don’t mean Gaddafi’s last murderous stand which seems likely to go on for a bit but not for ever, I mean in the parts which the protesters have already captured, in the East of the country, centred on Benghazi.

The Corriere della Sera’s Lorenzo Cremonesi reports from Benghazi, suggesting that some sign of what life will be like after Gaddafi is beginning to emerge. The town is being run by a 15 man committee of prominent citizens and steps are being taken towards peacekeeping and getting people back to work.

The significance of this is that it has not descended into an Islamic theocracy. There are still risks, because Libya is a tribal land and other tribes may have different ideas.

The leaders of the West have spoken, as they should, and it is time to urge a light touch. Special forces should not, in my opinion, be used to evacuate civilians: these people are highly paid and knew the risk they were taking. Their companies will have taken measures for their safety. Nor am I convinced about a ‘no-fly’ zone. Anyone wanting to escape to his Liechtenstein bank account would only need to drive to Algiers and take a plane. The Libyan military seem already to have refused to slaughter their own people, and there are many ways for Gaddafi to commit a massacre without using the air force. Against that what happens if someone does try to escape in a plane, military or otherwise? Or a Libyan air force plane takes to the skies? Do we shoot it down, which would be an act of war?

I further think we must be wary of sanctions: they tend to hit the ordinary people who are having it pretty tough already.

It may be the West has to risk looking toothless or timid, but I believe we should limit our activity to freezing the assets abroad of Gaddafi’s family and a handful of his henchmen, and assisting with bringing the guilty to trial.

The people of the West will not stand for another Iraq.

Mr. Assange and the law

I am in two minds about Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks: I like a bit of openness, and 'exposing' to the public information which was already available to nearly three million people doesn't seem much to get excited about. Against that he seems a bit of a nutter, and his assertion that there should be no secrets at all seems to stray from the Libertarian to the Anarchist.

But I do have a problem with the extradition procedings. Sweden has very peculiar rape laws, particularly concerning unprotected sex to which otherwise there was consent, which don't exist in Britain. Mr Assange is being extradited for something which is not a crime in the UK.

Suppose that in some exotic African country it was considered an offence against the Deity for a man to appear in public without plucking his eyebrows. An extradition request is received for someone concerning whom irrefutable evidence exists of unplucked eyebrows in that country. Do we extradite the guy - to face life imprisonment in some disease ridden oubliette- or do we say this is a nonsense?

A more realistic example exists in Switzerland. Tax evasion is not a crime in Switzerland, it is a matter for the civil courts just as a debt to a private person would be. So the Swiss don't extradite people to other countries who are wantd for tax evasion.

I am just wondering if we shouldn't rethink this.

23 February, 2011

Departure of a madman

History is of course written by the winners. We have nothing nice to say about Adolf Hitler, and Genghis Khan’s softer side is, alas, unknown. There was a point when Muammar Gaddafi was OK to talk to and deal with – obviously we wished he had indulged a little more in the democracy thing, you know – but now he is a loser.

Gaddafi has said he will hold out until the end, a martyr (although, see above, that’s not how he will be remembered), and will die, cornered, in a hail of bullets like the sons of Saddam Hussein, whose names no one can now remember.

What we now know as Libya was three regions – you couldn’t even call them countries – Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan. Idris al-Senussi, hereditary head of the ruling clan of Cyrenaica, having chosen the right side to fight on in World War II, and thus becoming Emir of Tripolitania, succeeded in uniting the three regions and was made King of Libya in 1951 at the age of 62. 18 years later, in Turkey for medical treatment and on the point of abdicating, he was deposed by a group of young officers led by Muammar al-Gadaffi, who was then 27.

So Libya turned from a group of tribal desert homelands immediately after the War to an internationally recognised independent monarchy to, well, something different in less than a quarter of a century.

Gaddafi was a supporter of Egypt’s Nasser, and practised a form of Islamic socialism, or rather socialism mixed with Islam. He was something of an internationalist, having tried to form an international anti-imperial league, then a centre for anti-imperial terrorism, then a pan Arabist league (he was a little too racy for some of the more conservative states) then a pan-African independence organisation. All these failed, but he secured his power base in oil rich Libya and, having admitted Libya’s involvement in the bombing of Flight 103 over Lockerbie, brought his country in from the cold.

Gaddafi ruled through a rigid system of favours and punishments. Although he formally gave up al governmental offices, his People’s Committees were firmly under his control. Corruption, as in all dictatorial societies which have been in power more than five years, was an all-pervading disease. Could he have kept on without the Jasmine movement all over North Africa? I think he could, although I doubt whether he could have taken it so far as to hand over power to one of his sons. We live in an internet age and people know how others live. GDP per person is $11,000 but most Libyans feel that their wealth is being stolen by Gaddafi’s elite.

Internationally, Gaddafi is seen as a bit of a joke, with his passion for uniforms and female bodyguard. Soon he will go, in a hail of bullets or in a private plane, light will be shone into the regime and the Libyans will see what they have had and what they have got now. They will find they are educated and healthy and that they have to earn their living internationally.

My guess is that Gaddafi will be seen by history as mad, but not quite so bad as was thought by some. If there is lawlessness in Libya that will lead to poverty and they may cast their minds back wistfully to the time of tyranny. And depending on what comes next, the West may regret seeing the back of him, too.

22 February, 2011

Not dead yet

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, a leading liver specialist, tells us that ‘poor’ alcohol regulation could cost 250,000 lives in England and Wales over the next 20 years. God alone knows what he thinks will happen in Scotland where, according to my less scientific reasoning, half the people are aggressive teetotallers (a truly unlovely thing) and the other half have been drunk since childhood.

The figure sounds awful, doesn’t it? 250,000!

Until you realise that around 600,000 people die every year in Britain. So over the next 20 years we would expect 12 million to die, perhaps a few more because the population is growing.

So it turns out that ‘poor’ regulation of alcohol may be (you can’t forecast human behaviour accurately over such a long period), the cause of 1 death in 48, perhaps one in 50, around two percent.

Doesn’t seem too bad now, does it?

Gilmore, who is not a swivel-eyed fanatic, came into the public eye last year with a report that alcohol is more dangerous than many Class A drugs. And I am sure he is right, but he has no idea how to attack the problem, except with the intervention of the State. He says we should learn from neighbouring countries, but as I often point out, here in Italy alcohol costs far, far less than in Britain and yet Italy doesn’t have anything like the scale of the problem.

What we can learn from neighbouring countries is that behaviour is best regulated in small groups: the family, the immediate area. If the State declares that alcohol is naughty, what is a teenager going to do?

20 February, 2011

Sunday Thinkpiece: Cameron suspends Copernican theory

Oh dear, there is more news that the idiot, nanny coalition which runs the country is going further to assert its powers to tell you what time it is. The news, and I really hope this is incorrect and that they find some useful purpose for parliamentary time, is that the Coalition, with David Cameron’s backing, wants to advance the clocks by two hours, for reasons of tourism. This would put us in the same time zone as that great tourist must-see, Bucharest, and that, Mr. Interference thinks, is what visitors to the London Olympics are going to want.

Conservative MP Rebecca Harris, who must be a couple of scones short of a cream tea, told The Sunday Telegraph: 'The tourism industry has been crying out for extra daylight saving for years. It could extend the tourist season and boost the economy by up to £3.5billion a year.

'And we would have longer, lighter evenings.'

I am sorry to point out to Ms Harris and the rest of the half-wits involved in this, that whatever Mr. Cameron says the time is, the Earth will go round the Sun in exactly the same way as before and our evenings will not be longer and lighter but exactly the same. Telling tourists that we are on the same time as Bucharest or Minsk is only likely to confuse them. It would be better for the tourism industry if we cleaned the streets instead.

19 February, 2011

Real money

What with all the hooha in Italy (protesters wanting to get rid of a powerful ruling figure) and the Middle East (ditto) I missed an important anniversary: 40 years since the decimalisation of the British currency under the insane Eurofanatic Edward Heath.

I have had both worlds, for better or worse. On Decimal Day I had already passed Maths A level so it wasn't too bad. I felt sorry for the old, who discovered a shilling was now 5 pence (as opposed to 5d which was a little more than 2 pence).

We had decimals, of course. I remember at school that a farthing was .001 and 1/24th of a pound, so if you had 13 farthings it was rounded up to £0 .014. Happy days, but the new currency was not to be worth very much for very long.

Hear the wise words of Jonathan Pearce: 'I would settle for any coinage system so long as it retained its value.

What killed respect and affection for money was not the decimalisation mania of the late, unlamented Sir Edward Heath. It was inflation.'

17 February, 2011

Bahrain (2)

I learn (no independent confirmation) that the last riot was quelled using British made teargas.

Makes you feel kinda proud.


The unrest in Bahrain was not, I think, predicted (certainly not by me), but there is no shortage of reasons for it:

- There is an American base, with part of the Fifth Fleet and 1,500 personnel

- The ruling family and its (inevitable in the Arab World) hangers on are Sunni, whilst more than half of the population is Shia.

- One fifth of the population is Hindu (Bahrainis import Indians for menial labour)

- Bahrain has a modern outlook: women vote, and there is a general liberalism not known in other Arab countries. Saudi aristocracy go there (it is connected by a causeway) to get some girls, whisky and cocaine.

- Against that there is a well entrenched Islamist tendency which did well in the 2006 elections.

Having said all that Bahrain is not Egypt; it has a GDP per capita of around $20,000, more than 7 times Egypt's. And it is not on the Red Sea, it is 1,500 km east, on the Persian Gulf. It may have caught the Egyptian infection, but if so it has been by internet.

My guess is that this is a step too far, both for the Americans and for the Saudis. We can expect the protesters to be violently put down, a story spun about Jewish interference, and perhaps a few concessions by the King. Nothing to see here – move along.

That’s my guess, anyway. But we live in strange times.

Maybe not now.....

Last weekend’s Women’s March, bearing the slogan ‘If not now, when?’ was highly successful. It is perhaps a symptom of the problem that no one, not even the protagonists themselves, expected the ladies to put so many people (many say a million) in the squares and streets of Italy. More demonstrations are planned.

So, have we got a burgeoning, Tahrir Sq type of movement here?

I think focus is the first issue they have to address. For many, that focus is Silvio Berlusconi: his bunga-bunga parties, his cheap television, his objectification of women. The guy is a bit of a dinosaur on the equalities front, but there again he is in his mid 70s; if your political instincts are formed in your mid twenties, that would have been in the early 1960s, and ‘the sixties’ largely passed Italy by.

And Berlusconi will point to the fact that he has appointed many women to government and party posts – enlightened, no? As the lawyer and MP Giulia Bongiorno points out ‘it is the method of selection we are complaining about’. And Italian TV has always been awful.

Sometimes known as ‘the land that feminism forgot’ Italy has a number of issues here which are nothing to do with Berlusconi, except inasmuch as he possibly had the power to change them a bit. More women graduate than men, and with better grades, but only 50% of female graduates have a job; despite making up a fifth of government ministers (thank you, Silvio) they make up around a fifteenth of directors of public companies. In Italy women are only half as likely as men to become legislators, managers and entrepreneurs (source Eurostat, other figures from ISTAT). These figures show not just a glass ceiling, they show tradition, lack of awareness as much as lack of opportuity.

My view is that when Berlusconi goes (and it might be any time between now and the 2013 elections, I can’t really see him staying on after that) he, or rather Berlusconism, will fall farther than many expect. It will be easy to enact a constitutional measure about ownership of the media and easy to shine a little light into the operations of the executive, and it will be easy to have someone monogamous in the top job.

But whether that will change much for women is another matter. And if they get rid of the Great Evil and things are still the same, well, that will be embarrassing.

15 February, 2011

Catcher in the sty

The new inhabitant of No.10 Downing St., Larry the cat, is said to be an excellent rat catcher.

Should keep him busy.

14 February, 2011

Statistics for dummies

It is hard to think of a more useless statistic than this, which is all over the news media: that China has overtaken Japan as the second largest economy in the world.

What are you going to do with this information?

If China were to be divided into ten smaller countries, each with a population the size of Japan (127 million or so) they would all be very poor nations indeed.

13 February, 2011

Sunday Thinkpiece (2): Mr Cameron's Big Society

During the General Election in the UK last year, Mr Cameron began to talk about The Big Society. It was clear that he thought it was something new and important, but it wasn’t clear, to most people at least, what it was. Some people think that his having laid so much emphasis on it, without really getting the people behind him, was one of the reasons he failed to win an outright majority in Parliament.

Few philosophical ideas have been exported from Britain to the rest of the world and most would bet good money that the Big Society is going to be one of those which isn’t. I think that would be a pity.

One of the reasons Mr Cameron seemed so vague is that he cannot permit himself to enunciate the clearest explanation of it: that at the moment, when something is wrong, people say ‘why don’t they do something about it?’ rather than saying ‘why don’t we do something about it?’ or ‘why don’t I start the ball rolling?’ Mr Cameron’s favourite phrase is almost as famous now as Margaret Thatcher’s oft misquoted original: Cameron says ‘there is such a thing as society, but it’s not the same as the State’.

But even if The Big Society never got going, it has now run into a blaze of negative comment. Here is Polly Toynbee in the Guardian: ‘civil society is rebelling at the great ‘big society’ fraud’. Her reasoning, if I can use such a word with respect to Ms Toynbee, involves the government ‘cuts’. Two examples which have been in the news:

- Liverpool Council, which was to be involved in some Big Society initiative with the Government, has pulled out, citing government cuts.

- Dame Elizabeth Hoodless, the retired head of Community Service Volunteers, said the cuts were destroying volunteering

It’s a bit odd, because one would have thought that volunteering was largely what the Big Society was about.

Let’s look at the local councils. The Government, interested as it is in devolving power, cannot tell the local authorities what to cut and what not to cut, only what their total budget is. They just have to hope that local councils don’t keep the Transsexual Outreach Department and cut children’s schoolbooks. And whilst we don’t yet know for certain, it appears that they are cutting money to charities.

And what is all this, Dame Elizabeth? When one thinks of a charity one imagines something like the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, or the Hague (poppy) Fund, dedicated volunteers rattling tin boxes and collecting money from the generous. And this is true of 75% of charities. But many, like Dame Elizabeth’s Community Service Volunteers, are reliant on government handouts. They are in essence, arms of the government. An example is ASH, action on smoking and health. It takes our money to persuade our elected representatives of its views on smoking; I want our representatives to listen to our views on smoking.

There is a very interesting website called Fake Charities which identifies these and what they are up to. The way it works is that we, through our taxes paid to the government, pay money to these bogus (a better word, I think) charities, who then use a part of it to lobby the government to change our laws to what they want. They are campaigning organisations using our money. Dame Elizabeth’s CSV receives £21.6 million, 75% of its income, from the State. She probably doesn’t have any idea what this volunteering stuff is about, and of course she is against ‘cuts’. CSV’s staff costs are a bit short of £16 million a year.

As the blogger Guido says, ‘a charity that relies in the main part on taxes is no more a charity than a prostitute is your girlfriend.’

Incidentally the CSV website has a survey on whether the Big Society has a future. You may find it strange that a charity should feel the need to take a survey about the policy of the elected government. Whatever you think about Cameron’s policy you might like to go and click ‘Yes’, just to annoy them.

For myself I do think the Big Society has a future. Whereas other societies, Italian, Jewish, Chinese, seem to operate a matrix of responsibility around the close or extended family, and others around a town or district, Britain has destroyed that and put a faceless state in its place. Where I differ from Mr. Cameron about his Big Society is that I think it will take a generation to implement.

Sunday Thinkpiece (1): don't mention the war

On 10th June, 1944, in an act of retaliation, the SS rounded up the inhabitants of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, in the Limousin district of West Central France, and slaughtered them, 642 people, including 205 children. It turned out later they had got the wrong village, intending the retaliation for Oradour-sur-Vayres. The gutted village is left as a memorial and is one of the worst things I have ever seen.

On the same day, 2500 km away in the village of Distomo near Delphi in Greece, the Waffen-SS were up to the same thing, massacring 218 people in retaliation for some resistance activity in the area.

Now the Greeks want compensation. The amount they have determined is €165 million and have gone to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to obtain the money from the modern German State.

Let us leave aside for the moment that Greece is in the unattractive position of a mendicant holding out his hand in expectation of largesse, telling the story of his pregnant wife and six starving children. The lion’s share of the handout will be paid by Germany. And let us leave aside the fact that the Germans say they paid up in 1960, and it is hardly their fault if the Greek government at the time didn’t give any money to the villagers. And let us gloss over, if we can, that at least fifteen similar outrages were committed across Europe.

What is disturbing here is the timeline. The villagers of Distomo went to their local court only in 1997, 53 years after the massacre, and just as the last German was released from life imprisonment for the crime. Even an 18 year old recruit at Distomo would now be 85.

And the rest of the political landscape is different. Germany became a different country after the war and was reunited in 1990. Greece, meanwhile, has been ruled by the army, deposed its king, developed a new constitution and joined the European Union.

Distomo and Oradour were eight years before the birth of Prime Minister Papandreou, ten years before Angela Merkel was born, 11 before Sarkozy and 22 years before David Cameron. Everything is different now, not least Germany, and it is time to stop fighting the battles our fathers and grandfathers fought.

The ICJ should have declared a statute of limitations on World War II crimes years ago.

12 February, 2011

Jan Palak for our times

Tunisia, Egypt and now according to Algerie 360 there are 30,000 riot police on the streets of Algiers. I have believed from the start that there would be a domino effect in N. Africa, and I wonder now if it could even cross the Red Sea.

How did it start? Rising food prices, years of discontent and mistrust, but the spark which ignited the tinder was on the 18th December. A young man, a university graduate, unable to find work had begun to sell fruit and vegetables in a market in Sidi Bouzid. He did not have a licence and the police confiscated his produce. He set himself on fire and died a few days later.

His name was Mohamed Bouazizi. I wonder if he will be remembered when it is all over.

Egypt rejoices for now

Mubarak went, quicker than I thought he would, and the crowds in Tahrir Sq have maintained a level of rejoicing I should not have thought possible without alcohol.

Now the hard work begins. The people, and foreign governments together, must monitor the position over the next few months to ensure the army council really does hand over power to an elected civilian assembly. One sign of warning will be if a charismatic leader emerges on the council. For the moment they all seem reassuringly old and dull. It is a pity that no one thinks elections could be held before the due date of September, but I suppose there will have to be changes to the constitution.

Mubarak and his family are believed to be in Sharm el Sheikh, just across the Gulf of Aquaba from Saudi Arabia, and I think the new regime would be wise to keep them there. One of the protesters' leaders said Mubarak had pocketed $70 billion over the years, and even if it is a fraction of that the people of Egypt will want it back.

11 February, 2011

Hold your breath!

How long can the world hold its breath? The 24 hour news media went off at a cracking pace when the demonstrations in Egypt started, and were beginning to fade when suddenly we hear that the army have taken power and that Mubarak will speak to the nation.

Mubarak's speech last night was extraordinary only for its sameness: the devoted patriot cannot let his people down by deserting his post. But the army?

In truth it is hard to see how there can be any 'transfer of power' (we are all trying to avoid the word 'revolution') without it going through the army. Mubarak's first concession was to appoint Omar Suleiman as Vice President. Mubarak had slipped into the job after the assassination of Sadat having been vice president, but he was an air force officer and represented the army faction. Suleiman was chief of the secret police and there was never the prospect of the crowds trusting him to hold elections. So it had to be the army.

The army will probably see off Mubarak. The question remains whether having gained power it would be prepared to cede it to democracy.

Go back to holding your breath.

10 February, 2011


This blog mourns the loss of Trevor Bailey, the England and Essex all rounder, who has died aged 87. He jointly held the record for the most years in which he scored 1,000 runs and took 100 wickets. Known as 'Barnacle Bailey' he wsa a very difficult batsman to get out, albeit not terribly exciting to watch. He played in 61 Test Maches, the last being in 1959. I think he still holds the record for the slowest 50 in First Class Cricket - a bit short of 6 hours.

After he retired from cricket he became one of the celebrated Test Match Special commentators. I was at Buckingham Palace when he got his OBE. We had all been told on no account to applaud when someone was called up to Her Majesty, but everyone clapped when Trevor Bailey's name was called.

Old methods are the best

'Woman dies after buttock enhancement' is one of those headlines which, whilst signifying a tragedy, cannot help but make you smile.

This is the first case I have heard of where a woman - or man for that matter - wanted a bigger bottom. And it seems the treatment might kill you.

Will women in the future risk their lives for this goal, or will they adopt the tried and tested procedure of sitting in front of the television eating junk food?

09 February, 2011

Rights inside

This evening the UK House of Commons is debating prisoners’ voting rights. The position used to be that while you were in prison you couldn’t vote. Simple.

Then a prisoner took the Government to the European Court of Human Rights, saying his rights were breached in removing his vote.

The House is likely to vote that only those prisoners in for a short stay and for certain minor offences will be allowed the vote, and the UK will probably have to pay a fine for not doing as it is told.

I can’t get terribly excited about the main issue: prison as a punishment is there to deter the guilty from doing it again and to deter others from committing the crime. I simply cannot imagine someone out to commit, say, an armed robbery being stopped by a friend saying ‘Watch out: if you’re caught you won’t be able to vote in the forthcoming elections.’ Most people don’t bother to vote anyway and most prisoners won’t bother. Another purpose of prison is to rehabilitate prisoners – not that we are very good at that, and what could be a better way of making them feel part of society than letting them choose who their leaders are?

Let them vote, they’re probably no less capable of understanding the issues than other people.

And the debate misses the important point: Britain and its people had no say in this. We are having to obey a law imposed by unelected judges from other countries. This is the first contentious edict from the human rights act I can remember even going before Parliament and even now the Government doesn’t promise to follow Parliament’s decision. What we need to do, all of us, is to subscribe to the principles of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights but have laws in Britain approved by the British Parliament, and those in Germany approved by the German one.

But they’re not even discussing that.

Tales of the unelected

Today, Prince Charles, heir to the throne, is going to address a committee of the European Parliament, about the usual green stuff.

Any new insights he might have will not have been offered to the British Parliament or any of its committees nor to any other UK organisation. He is going to Europe.

Here’s what he said the last time he went brown-nosing the Eurocrats: ‘Determination and principled leadership has never been more needed. Surely this is just the moment in history for which the European Union was created?‘

Someone needs to drill into Charles’ head

1 The European Union was not created to give determined, principled leadership. It was created to enforce the hegemony of a new political class, above election or electoral scrutiny.

2 In his own country (remember us, your Royal Highness?) the European Union is a contentious issue. By cosying up to them Charles is making a political point, and he is not supposed to be doing that

3 Our relationship with Europe is a constitutional matter, as is his own position, and I can assure HRH that if and when they finally seal the deal and absorb us into a united Europe, they won’t be wanting him. It is not only the British people who can turn Britain into a republic.

The hands of the Monarchy clock have clicked on to 6pm.

08 February, 2011

Word for word

News that the Singer Christina Aguilera fluffed her lines while singing the American National Anthem in front of 100 mililon people caused me little surprise until I found out that she is, in fact, American. I should have thought she would have known it pretty well. Don't they have to sing it in school?

Then I reflected that I have never yet met an Italian who knew the words to his own anthem, l'Inno Mameli, nor could keep with the extraordinarily uncatchy tune.

And how many Britons have ever heard this verse from ours, which, by the way, is seven verses long:

In love's endearments fond,
In wedlock's holy bond,
Blest be our Queen.
In her blest progeny,
We future Monarchs see,
Of England bold and free,
God save the Queen!

Apologies to the good folk of Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland, but it just says 'England'. And speaking of progeny, I shall have words to say about Prince Charles, fra poco.

06 February, 2011

Sunday Thinkpiece: Federalism and Survival in Italy

The story of Umberto Bossi has much that is of interest to other nations. His is one of the very few instances of a single-issue party becoming a national force, something that the UK Independence Party in the UK has not managed, even though founded only 5 years later. Bossi was helped of course, by the insane Italian electoral system.

Bossi started in politics through historical romance: he learnt folk legends and songs of the North from friends he met in medical school in Pavia (he was never to finish his qualifications) and, a little over 100 years from the founding of Italy out of independent states, began to think that his area, Lombardy, was different. It was – even now someone from the Veneto is different from someone from Molise who is again different from a Calabrian. The country has had little time to integrate. Bossi founded the Lombardy League in the North West on the basis of a similar organisation in the Alto Adige formed by a friend, but then made contact with other Northern associations to found the Northern League. They had, with Bossi, both the romantic folklore association and also a political one: they were aware, and resentful, that the North in Italy was subsidising the South.

I have been in Rome with northern friends from Milan. Even though they are not Leaguists, they find the place dirty, disorganised, wasteful and crime ridden compared to their own city, which is essentially northern European, more similar to Munich or Vienna than, say, Naples. Further south than Rome they regard as Africa. They don’t want to pay into this bottomless pit of crime and corruption. Bossi was tapping an easy vein of resentment when he started the Northern League as a political party in the mid ‘80s. He became the party’s sole representative, as senator, in 1987.

Bossi’s break came in 1994 with the Clean Hands campaigns and the rise of Silvio Berlusconi. In the election Bossi’s 3 million votes counted for 11 seats and made him an important member of the coalition. Berlusconi’s first government fell when Bossi withdrew from the coalition not long after. His problem was the lack of move towards federalism.

Though Bossi has turned down his demands from independence for the North to Federalism to fiscal federalism, the problem remains the same. After the former neo-fascist National Alliance Party merged with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and then withdrew, Bossi has stuck by Berlusconi, saying only that his price remained and it must be paid.

That price – fiscal federalism, involving allowing the regions to retain some of their own taxes, was put to a bicameral commission this week which voted 15-15, meaning that no green light was given. Berlusconi said he would enact the legislation by decree to be confirmed by parliament but the President, Giorgio Napolitano, said that he could not receive such a request. It is direction of travel that is important to Bossi. He must be able to show his supporters that movement is being made towards their goal. The more he makes concessions, like tolerating Berlusconi’s peccadilloes, the more he expects in the way of movement.

For the moment Bossi has said he will stand by Berlusconi. He is after all Right Wing, and Berlusconi is the nearest Italy has to that. The present government is of course more middle of the road by European standards whilst Bossi of course is more extreme: he it was who gave the order to open fire on immigrants in a boat trying to get into Italy. With whom else could he form an alliance? Bersani, the leader of the left, intriguingly said the other day that Bossi would never get federalism with Berlusconi – and given that Berlusconi’s bulk support is in the south this would appear to be true. Was it a covert invitation to talk?

Bossi’s main personal ally is the mild mannered and rather wet Giulio Tremonti, the finance minister, who comes from Lombardy and like Bossi studied in Pavia. It is said that the reason Gianfranco Fini left Berlusconi’s party, taking 30-odd deputies with him was that he feared Tremonti was becoming the leader-in-waiting. Could Bossi force an election by withdrawing from Berlusconi’s coalition and then side with Tremonti? What would this union look like? Damp economic management mixed with harsh immigration control and cutting off the South from the teat of State subsidy? A curious development but perfectly possible..

Another reason this is an interesting case internationally is the proportional representation voting system, which allows the pace of politics to be dictated by those who received the fewest votes. Umberto Bossi is the man to be watched; he is pulling the strings in one of the West’s great democracies.

05 February, 2011

The US and us

The Daily Telegraph reports that British nuclear secrets have been used without our consent as a bargaining chip to enable President Obama to sign an arms limitation deal with Russia.

I have said it before and will say it again: Obama is not on our side and we should not be on his.

Follow the money

There has been another robbery in the European Parliament, the third in recent times. The robbers are not after ideas – the Parliament has only one: further integration while paying themselves as much as possible – but cash.

I am reminded of the American bank robber Willie Sutton, who, when asked why he robbed banks, is supposed to have replied: ‘that’s where the money is’.

04 February, 2011


The story has gone round the whole world that PdL deputy Simeone di Cagno Abbrescia has been filmed in the Italian Parliament browsing an escort site on his new iPod. He said his hand slipped.

No one seems to have asked why the Italian taxpayer shoud have had to shell out for new iPads for all members of parliament. Why couldn't they buy their own?

High St Horror

With names such as Konstantinos Kalomoiris and Bianca Revrenna we are expecting a spicy, southern European drama, a shocking political intrigue, and it has proved to be no less.

Mr Kalomoiris works for the John Lewis department store, in Istanbul London and claims that his fellow worker Miss Revrenna slapped his bottom three times. This is part of a claim for sexual discrimination.

I can only say this. Mr Kalomoiris is 40 years old. It won’t be too long before he finds such attention less of an outrage and rather flattering.

02 February, 2011

Hunters hunted

The Italian hunting season (hunting means rough shooting, not riding around on a horse) should be over now, unless you live in one of the regions which has illegally extended it.

There were 35 killed and 74 injured – and that’s people, not the animals and birds, mainly other hunters but also innocent passers by, people going about their lawful business. One friend of mine was told his life was in danger if he went on to his own land between 1st October and 1st February without wearing a fluorescent jacket.

Italian hunters are not allowed to shoot within 150 metres of a house or 50 metres of a road, but they can walk all over your land, right by your front door carrying loaded weapons. And given the statistics above they are not too accurate when they open fire.

The Tourism minister, Michela Vittoria Brambilla (that’s her pictured, not a hunter) is one of the few ministers with some brains and some backbone. She is going to take on the hunting lobby, proposing to parliament that the safety distances be increased and preventing trespass on to private land. She deserves all the help she can get.