31 March, 2011


I have two, superficially contradictory, points to make about funding of the arts. Please bear with me.

The BBC has announced that they are introducing repeats of Top of the Pops, beginning in 1976. Good, you might say, accessible proletraian culture, paid for by the taxpayer.

But this is not in reaction to a popular yearning for eurovision song contest type music, flared trousers and self satisfied woolley-haired DJs. It is because the BBC has too many stations and cannot fill them. This awful nonsense will go out on the BBC's fourth TV channel (they have nine TV channels and of course many radio stations) and will provide a cheap source of material to justify the bandwidth.

At the same time the BBC is making cuts to its news service and, worst of all, cuts to the World Service, Britain's window on the world and one of the truly great things about British, or any other, broadcasting. The Hindi service is to be cancelled, denying basic impartial news to millions of people who unlike the London based Litterati, do not have the internet. So we can have Jimmy Saville repeated.

The BBC could provide a cheap, high quality service with one TV channel (two if we are to continue with the costume dramas which sell to the US at a profit) and Radios 3 and 4. All the rest could be flogged off to independent companies who allowed advertising, which would scarcely be noticed, and might even improve Radio 1. The World Service could continue in its originl form, supplying high quality news to people who did not otherwise have it.

But the controllers of the BBC can't see this: they must have more and more channels purveying more and more crap, earning them more and more money on the basis of audience figures, while the rest of us shell out more and more for something unnecessary.

Time to make a saving there, too.

Arts cuts

The story is all over the press, and I have to tell you that our betters are fit to burst that taxpayer funding to the Arts Council has been cut. According to the Guardian’s Dame Liz Forgan (Ms, or rather Dm Forgan is both head of the Guardian’s governing trust and head of the Arts Council and thus the place to go for these truths) they have been as fair as possible with the cuts but less money in means less money out.

So much, so good, that these luvvies are being asked to live in the real world. But what is arts funding all about?

Is it for the people? Without a doubt the bulk of the people would go for Andrew Lloyd Webber on the highbrow side and East Enders on the ..er.. less highbrow. But it’s not about what they want, you see, it’s about what they ought to have.

So what ought they to have? The market can easily decide what they want (Andrew Lloyd Webber makes lots of money). So they want let’s say, Confessions of a Window Cleaner but ought to be reading Martin Amis (not much better in my opinion). But who decides what they ought to have?

Yes, it’s the great and the good. A panel of ‘people who know’ decide what is good for us. They are, of course, arty types and have friends in the arty world who get the reluctant taxpayer’s money.

Really, if you put on a play that is so awful that no one goes to see it, you deserve to go bust in the same way as someone who makes a food product – kimchi ice cream, for example – that no one wants to buy. Most of these things are London-centric so someone in Cornwall is paying their share without being able to see the production due to the cost of rail travel and hotel accommodation.

The idea that funding should go to the opera – and a large amount does - is simply a case of the poor subsidising the rich.

If there have to be cuts – and there have to be – the Arts Council is exactly the place to start applying them. Let’s start with the people at the top.

30 March, 2011

What's your money worth?

What’s a currency worth? I occasionally get asked whether we have a fair or the right exchange rate and whether I think a currency will go up or down. It is a question asked by many expats who have an income determined in £, converted every month into €.

Here is a graph of how the pound has behaved relative to the euro over the last 5 years (source: FT).

You can see the pound lost nearly 10% in 2007 and over 20% in 2008. Arguably it has recovered a bit but four years ago the pound was over €1.50 and now it is about €1.15. Will it bounce back? Is it at an artificially low level now? Or was it at an artificially high level before?

One way of valuing a currency was discovered after the massive German inflation of 1923. They made a new currency, the Reichsmark, based roughly on what the things in the economy were worth: the land, the buildings etc. It did all right. When they made the euro in 1999 (bank deposits only for the first two years) they added up the money supplies of the individual nations. Did they get it right? Almost immediately the euro fell 20% and then clawed that back, so that the first entry you see on the graph, for 2006, was roughly the level (against the pound) that it was launched at seven years earlier.

Another way of valuing a currency is called Purchasing Power Parity: that is to say a currency should be valued at what you can buy for it. If a Korean family of four spends $1,000 a month on property, food and fuel then a British family should spend the same. The problem is fundamental differences: Korea might not have easy access to fuel; Koreans might eat less than the British (from my experience their diet consists largely of kimchi, pickled cabbage, and you don’t want too much of that, you really don’t).Closer to home, Italy’s GDP or national income is given as $31,320 whereas the purchasing power parity is $30,910, suggesting the euro in Italy is overvalued against the dollar by 1.3% . The comparable figure for Germany is an overvaluation of around 5%.

A simple way of getting round these PPP differences is to choose a product which is identical in every country. The Economist publishes the Big Mac Index

Thus what costs $3.71 in America costs no less than $6.78 in Switzerland and only $2.18 in China, suggesting that the Swiss Franc is overvalued by 80% and the Chinese yuan is undervalued by 40%. The euro area looks overvalued by nearly 30%, against 1.3% in Italy and around 5% in Germany on the traditional basis.

So what do they want, these countries? A currency that is artificially low will make that country’s exports cheaper (this is what the Chinese have been up to) but it will tend to be inflationary, because it makes imports more expensive. Coming out of a recession all countries want to stimulate their export businesses so to an extent it is a race to the bottom, keeping your currency as low as possible, although Britain and to a lesser extent the Eurozone is worrying about inflation. If interest rates go up in Britain before they go up in Europe, the pound will rise against the euro, for the simple reason that you get more money on your £ deposits.

The other thing which affects currency value and particularly in difficult times like now, is trust.

The Americans hope the markets will trust them because it is, well, America, strong, purposeful, invincible. Against that they have a nasty habit of printing more dollars, making them worth less.

The British are hoping the markets trust its austerity measures. So far this looks to be working but there are tough times ahead.

The Japanese hope the markets will trust Japan’s ability to pull itself out of recession and get its people spending.

In the Eurozone they are hoping that the markets believe Germany will remain strong and that the strongest will bail out the weakest. The markets have believed this so far. If Greece defaults and investors actually lose money, rather than see the economy bailed out with more loans, things might get ugly. Germany would like a weaker euro (good for the exports); the weaker countries would suffer.

Sorry, I don't have an answer. Keep an eye on Greece, is my advice.

Here is the news

US and UK may arm rebels if Gaddafi clings to power (Guardian)

Nato chief fears al-Qaeda have infiltrated rebels (Telegraph)

So if we rearm the rebels, some of this sophisticated weaponry might get into the hands of some people who really shouldn’t have it. And they are not going to be gentle with the people around Tripoli – under the terms of the UN Resolution we might find ourselves fighting against the rebels to protect Gaddafi’s people.

Yet if we do nothing Gaddafi will win, and, well, he doesn’t look like the ‘forgive and forget’ type to me. So to stop a massacre we are going to have to attack Gaddafi’s troops. Actually I don’t much object to hitting Gaddafi himself, if this is what we are going to do, because he has a military rank and is clearly directing matters.

But the Arab states, without whose agreement we would never have obtained the UN mandate, don’t much like the idea of us killing or deposing one of their own. Nor do the Turks, important members of NATO. And the Italians, whose airbases we are using, want to broker a ceasefire together with the Turks, and put Gaddafi into exile.

If we do that, the country will be rudderless. Britain and France have been saying we must let the Libyans decide their own affairs so there will have to be elections. They won’t be able to hold those for a while so the country will have to be run, like Egypt, by the army. Which army? Ours?

And suppose the Libyans vote on tribal lines in their traditional way, for Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. Will the country disintegrate? Will all of this have been just so the West could sponsor the break-up of Libya, back to where it was in 1934?

This is what happens when you interfere in other people’s fights without thinking first.

29 March, 2011

Troubles on the right

A series of difficulties for the European Centre Right.

In Britain, David Cameron is holding on with the support of the unpopular Liberal Democrats; the public has not yet felt the force of the rather modest austerity measures and 2011 / 12 will be a difficult time.

In Germany, Chancellor Merkel has lost Baden-Wurttemberg, which only a year ago most commentators would have thought impossible. Merkel supported the European Bailout mechanism and she supported nuclear power: the voters don't like either of them.

President Sarkozy has done disastrously in local elections in France. Unlike in Germany, the opposition is not going to join up against him (they are the left and the extreme right) but his own party is beginning to wonder if he is the right man to field in 2012. He was expecting a boost from the Libyan adventure but it failed to materialise.

Oddly, Silvio Berlusconi is more popular than any of the others but his path is not strewn with roses. Having lost his immunity from prosecution the court cases are beginning to pile up (currently four) and he is finding it increasingly difficult to portray this as a political attack. As usual his solution would be to do something good for Italy but with massive sovereign debts and Greece likely to default his options are increasingly limited.

Interesting times

27 March, 2011

Time for a change

Today, the State will tell you that the time has changed and that this somehow makes the day longer.

Nonsense, of course, but you'd better go along with it.

25 March, 2011

Europe is 54

Well, of course, Europe is a lot older than that. But the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community and got the whole bureaucratic, undemocratic shambles off to a start, was signed on 25th March 1957.

We are told we have to celebrate Europe Day on 9th May. So, we'll be looking forward to that.

24 March, 2011

Portugal bailout

The pleasingly named José Socrates, Prime Minister of Portugal, has resigned. Socrates is a fairly good egg: he created Portugal’s excellent drugs policy after the death of his brother from an overdose.

Portugal will almost certainly now have to ask the EU bailout fund for help. The important thing to note is that the reason Socrates resigned is that parliament had rejected his austerity plan. Now, the case of Chancellor Merkel, whose country will have to supply the bulk of the money, is that each country in receipt of funds should undergo ... er... an austerity plan.

And Merkel still has to get the bailout fund approval through her own parliament. She has lost a string of regional elections recently because she is perceived as being soft on the European debtors.

It seems likely that the UK, whilst not being a member of the Euro, will have to contribute a good £3 billion, maybe more, to the bail out, without any member of parliament having the balls to oppose it.

23 March, 2011

Liz Taylor RIP

The death is also announced of Elizabeth Taylor, the actress, aged 79. She had seven husbands, albeit one of them twice, succumbed to what Americans call ‘substance abuse’ and said Michael Jackson was the most normal person she knew.

It is not for this blog to judge people, least of all their character analysis, only to judge how the living judge others.

I will finish with the fact that she campaigned for AIDS victims and gave one of the world’s great precious stones, the Burton-Taylor diamond, to an orphanage.

They'd make a film of her, a story of redemption, if it weren't that it would involve how trivial Hollywood really is.

Iraq again?

This blog 18th March: ‘The sensible statesman, before joining battle, asks what the long term effects are going to be, and identifies an exit route. We appear to have done neither’.

Nick Harvey, the Armed Forces minister, asked how long Britain would be involved in the military operation in north Africa: “How long is a piece of string? We don’t know how long this is going to go on for.”

David Cameron: ‘this is not Iraq’

Tim Hedges: 'It sure looks like it'

Fred Titmus RIP

This blog is sorry to announce the death of Fred Titmus, the England off-spinner, aged 78. Titmus, who was the regular off-spinner / all-rounder in the England side, was involved in an extraordinary accident in 1967, where he lost four toes to the propeller of a motorboat in the West Indies. He returned to county cricket in 1968 and to Test Cricket in 1974. He last played first class cricket in 1982 when, attending a match as a spectator, he was called up suddenly to play, aged 50, and took 3 for 43 to help a victory for Middlesex.

22 March, 2011

Pinetop Perkins

Pinetop Perkins, one of the great bluesmen, has died aged 97

The view from Japan

I mentioned yesterday that the press is losing interest in the Japanese earthquake / tsunami, but that is not before trying their best to make something of it, in particular the nuclear fallout. Here is Lewis Page in The Register:

The Fukushima reactors actually came through the quake with flying colours despite the fact that it was five times stronger than they had been built to withstand. Only with the following tsunami – again, bigger than the design allowed for – did problems develop, and these problems seem likely to end in insignificant consequences...

The lesson to learn here is that if your country is hit by a monster earthquake and tsunami, one of the safest places to be is at the local nuclear powerplant. Other Japanese nuclear powerplants in the quake-stricken area, in fact, are sheltering homeless refugees in their buildings – which are some of the few in the region left standing at all, let alone with heating, water and other amenities.

Nothing else in the quake-stricken area has come through anything like as well as the nuclear power stations, or with so little harm to the population. All other forms of infrastructure – transport, housing, industries – have failed the people in and around them comprehensively, leading to deaths most probably in the tens of thousands

Needless to say, countries all over the world are ‘reviewing’ their nuclear power policy. However, with the Middle East at risk of going up in flames, we might be very grateful for nuclear power. Very grateful indeed.

21 March, 2011

Drink Driving

Five out of ten for Philip Hammond, UK Secretary of State for Transport, who has today decided not to reduce the legal driving limit of alcohol /blood from 80 mg per 100ml blood to 50mg, and will introduce new tests for drugs. So far so good, but he loses the five points for cancelling the right to a blood test and promising to increase the detection rates.

Here in Italy it is almost the reverse case. The limit is 50mg, only the best would do, but there is an unspoken social contract between the police and the public that the police will not be offesnsively intrusive or overly zealous. It works well: if you are in an accident or have offended the police in some other way you are treated to the full majesty of the law, but the ordinary law abiding citizen tends to be left alone.

I appreciate this would not be possible with the puritanical trait of the British character, but it really is time the Government put a stop to the reign of terror by what, after all, are public servants. At Christmas, with a month of offensive adverts on the TV, the police tested an incredible 169,838 people (the number was less than the previous year due to bad weather) to find that les than 4% tested positive. They had interfered with the innocent private travel of over 163,000 citizens, in one month.

This is madness, and if Hammond had any balls he'd put a stop to it.

The biggerst danger on the roads are old people who have bad eyesight and slow reactions and get confused by the heavy traffic. Let's develop some method of testing reactions, whether they are impaired by drink, drugs or age.

Thinkpiece: And in other news...

Those of us who rely on the 24 hour news channels – BBC News Channel, Sky, CNN, Al Jazeera etc – get irritated by the way they latch on to one subject and flog it to death. Most recently it has been the Japan earthquake and Tsunami and now of course it is Libya, just as the Japan story seems to be dying down (not enough deaths). They will be hoping Libya will be the gift that keeps on giving, but that Gadaffi is docile by the time of the royal wedding (I presume he hasn’t been invited, even as the guest of Prince Andrew). It makes you wonder whether some important news stories are underplayed because there is something mildly more telegenic going on elsewhere, or some unimportant ones are overplayed because of a lack of other interesting events. In fact both are true.

When the Arab World crisis was developing, in December-January, we thought it might turn into a widespread issue: I voiced this concern on 12th January. It might be interesting three months later to go a little deeper than our one topic news agencies and investigate how it is all going.

This is where it all started – and I expressed my surprise that it should be here. I know the country a little and it seemed well run, calm, prosperous, almost European in its levels of education, emancipation and tolerance. When Ben Ali left in mid January (some say his wife took the Treasury with her) I wrote ‘If Ben Ali can fall, so can the others’.

The constitution requires a new president to be sworn in within 2 months; the interim Prime Minister Gannouchi scheduled elections for June but himself had to resign at the end of February because the protesters thought he was too close to Ben Ali.

The risk in Tunisia is that the place descends into anarchy and that there is a subsequent unopposed takeover by militants. The protesters still cannot agree whether to have a new constitution, much less what it might say, but I am optimistic: if dictators tend to leave no deputy, at least they tend to neutralise extremist opposition.

This is where I thought the revolution would come, but Boutelfika remains in power. There have been demonstrations, and some deaths, but the people don’t seem to have the reckless fervour of Tunisia and Egypt, perhaps remembering the civil war in the 1990s, where the Islamist factions, who had been thought to have won the election, were put down by the army. The main anti-Boutelfika movement was responsible for siding with the army and seems to have lost trust. I think Algeria will pause, and then it will all start again, but this time, with different regimes in its neighbours things, might be different.

The most populous Arab country, with 80 million people, seemed also to have the most united and effective protest movement. After Mubarak handed over power to the military, elections on an amended constitution were held a couple of days ago, and the pro-amendment side seem to have won with a comfortable majority on a high turnout. Of course the military still have to hand over power, but we can be optimistic.

Readers of this blog may have noticed that I don’t agree with the recent action in Libya. It is sometimes described as being taken by ‘the international community’, a bogus concept at the best of times but in this case downright false: the abstentions, just among the 15 members of the security council, included China, India, Russia, Brazil and Germany, getting on for half the world’s population. There will be plenty of opposition in the 100 or so who have not been asked to vote, and already the Arab League is having second thoughts.

If I were Gaddafi I would play the long game. If he holds his recent ceasefire and withdraws to Tripoli, thus posing no threat to civilians, the Interference Force or whatever it is called would have no UN mandate to act. If it rearmed the protesters and they attacked Gaddafi it would be they putting the civilians of Tripoli at risk, so presumably we would have to fight on the opposing side, with Gaddafi. He then just waits for us to get bored – five years? ten? – before murdering his enemies.

I also have this question: having attacked another country with over a hundred high tech missiles, will Obama have to hand back his Nobel Prize for Peace?

Saudi Arabia
Easily the most strategically important of the Arab states, it provides some 9 million barrels of oil a day, some 10% of total world demand. There have been riots in Saudi, and the monarchy has so far bought them off, with some $60 billion of handouts.

Saudi has a succession crisis as both the King and the Crown Prince are old and infirm. The ruling family is of the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Muslims and the majority of the country is Sunni, but there is a sizeable minority of Shia in the east, the protection of which caused Saudi recently to send troops to Bahrain.

The riots could start again now, and they could stage a repeat with the succession crisis. If the country is destabilised oil will reach $200 a barrel.

The ruling family is Sunni, while two thirds of the Muslim population are Shia, a classic recipe for disaster. The Shia protests are supported by Iran (another recipe for disaster) and more than half the population are immigrant workers (another etc etc). Saudi will try to hold it together, as will the USA because it is the base of the Fifth Fleet. Still, it looks ripe for serious destabilisation.

Riots have broken out against President Assad, whose father was dictator before him. The Assads and most of the ruling elite are Alewite Shias, whereas most of the population is Sunni. In my view things don’t look too good for Bashar al-Assad, and nobody will shed any tears if he goes, perhaps to return to his original profession of being an optician in West London.

There has been unrest in Jordan, which looks containable, and in Iran (which of course is not Arab). Yemen looks about to break into two (it was two countries until 1990) and may be of strategic interest for its Port of Aden (built by the British), particularly if the USA are kicked out of Bahrain.

This series of uprisings has made for a fascinating study and for once a large part of the world looks as if it might change for the better. Communicating through modern networks the protesters have often seemed one step ahead of the governments. Each country in the Arab World is different, and things will move at different paces, but the common factor seems to be that the people suddenly feel they can do it: they feel empowered.

This has not been a good time for the United States, whose President dithered. The world’s superpower has looked ineffective.

It has not been a good time for Europe, which could not agree. The two driving forces of the continent, France and Germany, hold diametrically opposing views. The newly created Foreign Minister, Baroness Ashton, was too slow to jump one way or another and it became apparent that nobody in Europe, much less outside it, took her seriously.

It may have been a good time for the UK’s David Cameron, who at the moment is receiving plaudits for being decisive (and plaudits from me, too: decisive is a good thing, I just wish he had been decisive in the other direction). He is likely to be in power until 2014/15 and if we are still in Libya then things may go badly for him.

The person who has really gained has been France’s Nicolas Sarkozy. By jumping the gun, rashly recognising the Benghazi protesters and pushing for intervention, he has quite possibly ensured his re-election next year from an almost impossible position. Whether that is a good thing is another matter.

19 March, 2011

Jet Harris RIP

Jet Harris, who has died of cancer aged 71

18 March, 2011

Libya and the UN resolution

Most British Prime Ministers become enamoured of the quality of our armed forces and can't wait to try them out, like a child with a train set on Christmas morning. There was John Major with the Balkans, Tony Blair all over the world and now David Cameron with Libya. Anyway there's nothing like a military adventure to take people's minds off what is happening at home.

France wants to contain Libya because of immigration, the Lebanese have presumably been bribed and Britain, well, its Prime Minister seems drunk with power.

The sensible statesman, before joining battle, asks what the long term effects are going to be, and identifies an exit route. We appear to have done neither.

The prospect of the man responsible for Lockerbie surviving after we have joined an international effort aqgainst him is too awful to contemplate. So we are committed to removing him. If the 'no fly' zone proves not to be enough, we will have to go further.

And when Gaddafi goes or is killed, what then? Libya is a tribal country. Some tribes support Gaddafi, some would favour hard core islamism (is that what you want, Mr Cameron?), others are secular. If we remove Gaddafi who do we hand over to? Should we just walk away, leaving the country to descend into civil war? Or will we identify 'responsibilities' and have to stay there to keep the peace?

As to the no fly zone it woud be best if it were conducted by Arabs: Saudi, UAE, Egypt, using the expensive kit we have sold them. That way Gaddafi will be seen as an Arab problem. But what are the chances of that happening?

I don't like this at all.

16 March, 2011

Happy Birthday Italy!

Italy, as we all know, is 150 tomorrow. This is a nation which likes a party, and yet here I have found reaction to the anniversary rather slow, almost indifferent. Italians see their history either in terms of millennia or in terms of modern times. The Romans called the peninsula ‘Italia’, 18th century British aristocrats doing the grand tour called the place Italy, even though, had there been a United Nations it would not have recognised any such country. So the idea of Italy is nothing new. What is being celebrated is the Italian Nation State, born in 1861, which in most people’s minds is a somewhat different thing.

And in truth Italy did not really want to unify: the various regions had become linguistically, culturally and gastronomically (important in Italy) diverse. Cavour, first Prime Minister and one of the great architects of the Risorgimento, spoke better French than Italian, and even now in the 21st century it is not uncommon to see a translator brought on at a conference when a speaker lapses into Neapolitan.

And the years since 1861 have been tough going. The Papacy, the Habsburgs and Napoleon are more than enough for any country to have on its CV and in the 19th century Italy suffered: its people were poor, hungry poor, its political institutions were unworkable and it was going nowhere. It had been ruled by the Habsburg Spanish, the Habsburg Austrians and a variety of city states before Napoleon attempted unity, or at least duopoly, by trying to manage the north while putting his brother in law Murat in charge of the South, under the title King of Naples, and annexing Venice.

As Napoleon fell from grace, and France withdrew its troops to fight the Franco-Prussian War, the intellectual and social elite felt the time had come to go for a unified Italian monarchy. The Risorgimento was a colourful period, with the derring-do of Garibaldi and the aristocratic superciliousness of Cavour, who felt that the rest of the nation should have been a client state under his region, Piedmont. They were coupled with a rag-bag of hothead revolutionaries, led by Mazzini. Eventually they kicked the Austrians out and they had their country. For what it was worth.

But not much happened for the man in the street: Italy was still an agrarian economy, the industrial revolution having largely passed it by. Despite some improvements to life in the south, people were leaving and eventually this went from exodus to depopulation. Between the turn of the century and the First World War 9 million people emigrated. A further 650,000 men were lost in the war, and many others starved.

Against this background the rise of Mussolini – some ten years before Hitler – seems unsurprising. Like many fascists he had started out as a socialist, but having fought in the war came to believe that a future of unity and homogeneity of the people lay not in the class struggle but in nationalism.

The story of Italy’s twenty year association with fascism is still being told. I know of two restaurants in what is largely a socialist region which have shrines to Mussolini; his is a name often mentioned, his deeds (which extend beyond making the trains run on time, if in fact, he did) much discussed still. The Italians worshipped him, then strung him up.

For many, modern Italy was born after the war, or with the Republican Constitution of 1948, and as with everything else in Italian politics, opinions differ violently as to the merits of what went on after that. There was something of an economic miracle, resulting in a surge of living standards as private and public investment fuelled an economy which had scarcely known investment. The Italian industrial model, of small firms grouped together geographically to benefit from regionally skilled workforces, seemed to be the new best thing.

Against that there was massive corruption: the mafia and its evil cousins grew, the politicians were in the pay of local and national warlords, runners of protection rackets and drug pushers. Corruption spread to every level of society and to all levels of economic activity; even as the 21st century dawned, 70% of Italian jobs were filled by recommendation not selection and shops in the south still pay the pizzo, protection money.

But the Italians became richer, with the European boom of the ‘60s and handouts from the EU. There was La Dolce Vita and Cinecittà, but against that the Anni di Piombo, the years of lead, with its assassinations and torture by organised crime. The Italian economic model was found out: it only ever really worked in the north, but economists came to realise that a multiplicity of small firms meant no research and development.

After Garibaldi and Mussolini, the person who has had the greatest influence on Italian life is Silvio Berlusconi. Amidst the troubles of today, it is easy to forget that Berlusconi came to power on a surge of anti-corruption feeling and from the desire to see a new level of administrative competence after the failures. He is still surprisingly popular, but the magic has gone. Italian embarrassment is less for their bella figura abroad than for the fact that their saviour seemed to have feet of clay, and they need to rethink the political model as well as the economic..

Berlusconi will go soon and a new era is dawning. Italy has a new journey to make. Growth is at half the European average, unemployment high and debt at more than 100% of income. In the 21st century the mood is towards decentralisation and celebrating the diversity of the regions, rather than unification towards a single focal point that was the case in 1861. Some say Italy will be content to remain a second division power, others say a new dawn awaits if they want it. Life is comfortable here, but with globalisation the high cost base has been exposed: German tourists complain about how expensive the supermarkets are.

What will the Italians do? There is no determination here to become another Germany. They would like things to be better, but as long as there is pasta con sugo, a glass of wine and decent coffee, the Italians will be happy and welcoming. I don’t care what the economic commentators say, it’s a great place to live.

14 March, 2011

Booze and handouts

The Government has produced a new strategy on the alcohol problem, involving voluntary agreements on labelling, promotion etc, and this has been opposed by some charities, led by Alcohol Concern, whose Chief Executive, Don Shenker, has said 'it's all carrot and no stick for the drinks industry and supermarkets'.

Nothing new there, then.

I have mentioned before my belief that the UK's alcohol problem is caused by the break up of the family and by the substitution of the state for any moral authority, but I wanted to highlight what is going on here, because it is very strange.

In my post about the Big Society a while back, I mentioned fake charities, which you can read about here, and of course Alcohol Concern is one of them. It gets most of its income from the State (that is to say from the taxpayer). Now this is suspicious enough when it is pushing government to adopt its policies, but even odder when it disagrees with the government: we elect, and pay for, a government to make policy, then a 'charity', which lists under its aims the making of policy, argues against it, and we pay for that too.

The government should cut off the supply of funds to an organisation which is acting anti-democratically. And Alcohol Concern should be a bit more honest with us, and, if I may suggest, with itself.

Men's day does gooey

A comment to my post about International Women’s Day corrects me in that there is, apparently, an International Men’s Day, and that it is on 19th November.

If you have a strong stomach, read what it says on the website:

"Little boys -- our sons --- the Global Village's Next Generation of Fathers -- enter this world brimming with insatiable curiosity, irrepressible enthusiasm, unbridled energy, and limitless potential. For some, the journey from childhood to manhood is an exhausting struggle with academic performance, self-esteem, and health issues. It is a journey that is further complicated by the lack of access to positive male role models and mixed signals and misinformation about masculinity, fatherhood, and the rules of engagement for courtship and marriage which are transmitted daily by music videos, films, television situation comedies, the print media, and segments of society.

Is it any wonder that some of our sons -- the Next Generation of Fathers -- upon reaching puberty, descend into an abyss of confusion and despair?

Have the adults of the world inadvertently and collectively overlooked the unique psychological and intellectual needs of boys -- our sons -- the Next Generation of Fathers? How do we heal their broken spirit? What do we need to do to provide them with viable options, resources and support services; fire up their imagination; and restore their faith in themselves and in humanity?

Let's work together in a collaborative and loving spirit to design, implement, and sustain initiatives that aggressively and effectively resolve our sons' -- the Next Generation of Fathers' -- academic performance, health, and self-esteem issues.

We must not delay! The time is now!

Actually I am all in favour of role models for our sons, the next generation of fathers, preferably ones who don’t write gooey sentimental tripe. You can just imagine the sort of person who writes ‘misinformation about the rules of engagement for courtship and marriage which are transmitted daily by music videos...’

Or can you? Just imagine the confusion and self-doubt sown among the next generation of fathers as through salty tears they look up from the abyss of confusion and despair to read that this mawkish drivel was written by a woman. Yes, little boys – our sons – the United States co-ordinator for International Men’s Day is Diane A Sears.

So have the other side already won? I’m afraid we are going to have to organise a proper International Men’s Day in which we teach our sons, the next generation of fathers, how to drink beer, watch sport on the television and keep women out of the boardroom.

Nuclear doubts

The Corriere della Sera’s perceptive cartoonist, Gianelli, highlights a serious peripheral fallout from the Japan earthquake: renewed suspicion over nuclear power.

Many countries, in particular Italy, are debating nuclear power again having unwisely signed up to the EU’s carbon limitation scheme, which is about to become even more stringent under the insane Connie Hedegaard, whose proposals have been estimated to cost an astonishing €270 billion per year.

Wind, hydroelectric and wave power are not going to solve Europe’s energy needs. If carbon emissions are to be reduced dramatically only nuclear power can do that.

Otherwise, carbon emissions can be reduced by winding down economic activity, scarcely tempting as we try to emerge from a recession.

The timing could scarcely be less fortunate.

13 March, 2011


Most of the sins attributed to Prince Andrew seem to involve him getting rich people to pay off his ex-wife’s debts. For myself I don’t know if I find it very quaint or very curious.

But the press seem to be calling for him to be sacked, forgetting that his role is not a formal one.

The bottom line is this: businessmen can go on their export trips without Prince Andrew if they like. I myself have been on hundreds of business trips without even seeing him: it is quite possible and he is not forced on you by the government or the Royal Family.

The reason he does what he does is that some of our exports have to go to places where they hold royalty in high esteem (and incidentally where they put up with vastly more serious royal peccadilloes than Andrew could even dream of). If Andrew’s presence helps to secure the contract (and with it British jobs and earnings) the exporters will take him.

If he is working for business, then business should decide if he stays or goes.

His other job, that of being a Prince, is one he can’t be sacked from.

12 March, 2011

Spear waving

At a meeting on Friday, EU leaders demanded that Gaddafi step down.

So that’s it, then: sweaty and terrified, the man who has run Libya with the iron fist these forty-odd years, whose Alma Mater is the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, will flee to whichever country will take him.

Or, let’s be open, maybe he will fall off his chair laughing, hit his head and die.

According to der Spiegel, the EU leaders kept open the possibility of military action, but felt that would require the agreement of the Arab League and the United Nations. Well, my dears.

It would also require that the EU had a viable army, which fortunately it doesn't.

Just think how much money we could save getting rid of these professional lunchers. In fact we could save plenty if they promised just to have the lunches and not do the ineffective spear waving.

11 March, 2011

Let them get on with it

'No foreign intervention! Libyans can manage it alone' the banners read. They are written in English and are for the benefit of us and the Americans. An SAS team were captured and kicked out of the country.

But somehow we just can't seem to get the message. There is a certain sort of politician, akin to the armchair warrior in the pub, who feels that at every bit of disturbance we should intervene; 'send a gunboat' as Viscount Palmerston used to rage. 'Kill an Argie, win a Metro' as Private Eye had it during the Falklands War.

This is their fight. A 'no fly zone', fortunately likely to be vetoed by Russia, would mean an attack on Libys's air defences, and would be the first step towards a war we wouldn't be able to get out of. And we have fought enough of those these 10 years.

People are killed all the time by murderous regimes in China, Burma, Zimbabwe and countless other places without us intervening. This is the Libyans' fight. Let us wish the protesters well and let them get on with it.

08 March, 2011

Planning ahead

The Government is trying to create a housing policy, which will permit the building of tens of thousands of houses, particularly in the South East. Here is a suggestion: cut the Government's association with the South East and others will follow, lowering demand for houses.

This list shows the percentage of a country's population which lives in the capital:

USA        1.7%
France     3.3%
Germany  4.1%
Italy          4.6%
UK         12.5%

The UK is London-centric. The Gvernment should take a lead. Modern communications would make it easy to move all the major government departments into the regions: Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol all have excellent road, rail and air links. Video conferencing should become the norm. Think how much we would save. Come on, Cameron, think outside the M25.

International Women's Day

The mimosa is out in Umbria and it is International Women's Day.

The day is celebrated in France and Italy but not England or Germany, or the USA.

Good luck to all those who support it.

PS No sign of an International Men's Day yet. We're working on it.

07 March, 2011

UK: The future of the Protest Vote

In a parliamentary election last Thursday in the seat of Barnsley, a former coal mining area in Northern England, the Labour Party candidate, as expected, was returned handsomely. There were two big surprises, however: the UK Independence Party (which campaigns for Britain to leave the EU and which, I had better declare, I helped found) beat the ruling Conservative party candidate into second place; and the Liberal Democrat Party, junior members of the ruling coalition, were beaten into sixth, behind an independent former miner and the far right anti-immigrant British National Party.

Naturally many people are asking whether this is the end for the Liberal Democrats and whilst we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from one result, I think there are points of interest here.

Just twenty or twenty-five years ago there were effectively three parties: you voted Labour or Conservative and if you wanted to register a protest vote you voted Liberal. There were of course others on the ballot paper- the excellent David Sutch of the Monster Raving Loony Party, for example – but they were cranks. The Liberals were slightly cranky but they had party conferences and party political broadcasts on the television so were a sort of institutionalised protest.

In the 1980s and early 1990s three new national parties emerged: UKIP, the Green Party and the British National Party. They stayed way behind the Liberals (now the Liberal Democrats) but changes to the political broadcast rules meant the smaller parties got more airtime, so the electoral position outside the top two was LibDems (institutional protest), UKIP / Green / BNP (semi-institutional), others. But note that whilst the semi-institutional three had defined core beliefs, the LibDems, to maintain themselves alone in the second division, did not (or at least the notion of 'Liberalism' was sufficiently hazy to adapt to changing circumstances). So only a percentage of LibDem voters voted that way because of what was in their manifesto. It is thought that their core vote is only around 5% of the electorate whereas UKIP, for example has a (total) vote of around 7%.

Now with the LibDems joining the government, their share of the ‘none of the above’ vote may be lost in whole or in part. Of course the core beliefs of the others may hold them back from capturing all these protests: you might be in favour of the EU, anti-environmentalism and pro immigration, but few, I think, share that exotic eclecticism - there is something for everyone.

The LibDem position would seem to be this: if, as we near the next election, the Coalition is seen to have failed, they will reap in full measure what they have sowed. They might well split up into single issue parties, pro-EU for example. If, by contrast, the Coalition is a success, there is the serious risk that Mr Cameron will allow himself to be talked into governing alone (most of his backbenchers don’t like the coalition). In this case the LibDems will find it hard to return to being the principal recipient of the protest vote. They will have been tainted.

Mr Clegg’s best hope is that Mr Cameron still needs him in five years’ time.

06 March, 2011

Sunday Thinkpiece: Does the EU have a foreign policy (and should it)?

A few years ago, when a very brave university political science faculty invited me to give a talk on why the European Union was an expensive, undemocratic evil (OK, that wasn’t exactly the wording we had agreed for the title – most of the students were funded by the EU’s Galileo programme) I asked the class if they thought that the EU should have a foreign policy, governed by majority voting. They all, without exception, thought it should.

Then we went through the positions that individual governments had taken on the Gulf War, and found that if there had been a vote on sending EU forces to help Bush and Blair, it would have been in favour. This balance, surprising to some, is because France, vehemently against the Gulf War, makes the most noise but only gets one vote, whereas the newly joined Eastern states, still remembering the oppression of the Soviet Union, took a firmly pro-American line. One student suggested that perhaps only the 'important countries' should vote – he must have meant the 'original members' because he was from Belgium, which goes to show you can be thinking one thing while everyone else is thinking another.

Anyway at the end they all agreed that having a foreign policy depended on what the policy was.

And that’s the problem. You could get all 27 members to vote for the desirability of motherhood and apple pie (‘Peace on Earth, Good Will towards men’ would be refused by Hans Schultz and the German Socialists as being too much like Christmas: Rocco Buttiglione was turned down for a Commissioner’s job because he was a practising Roman Catholic). But the developments in North Africa and the Middle East are more difficult than that. So they talk, and they eat.

Baroness Ashton, who I think everyone agrees is miles out of her depth as head of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, will convene an informal meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, with lunch, naturally, on 10th March, only three months after the crisis started, to prepare for another lunch meeting the following day. Britain wants to go in hard (or rather wants the Americans to), France wants a Mediterranean lunch Council and most of the rest don’t much care. To give you a clue as to the deliberations, Baroness Ashton is a former left wing ‘peace’ campaigner, and of the three Presidents, Barroso is a former communist; Victor Orban, PM of Hungary which holds the rotating presidency is another former communist who is facing criticism for outlawing press criticism of his government (he’ll fit in OK in Brussels); and the ueber President, Gauleiter of all he surveys, Hermann van Rompuy, is Belgian. In the first Gulf War, Belgium was so nervous of taking a position on the invasion of Kuwait that it refused even to sell bullets to NATO. It was of course holding the rotating presidency when events blew up in Tunisia, but can be forgiven for doing nothing because it didn’t have a government.

Added to all that there are only two serious armies in Europe (no, not Belgium): France and Britain, which rarely agree on anything. But my heavens they have the resources: Ashton’s budget is half a billion euros, of which ten million is spent on PR. She has an ambassador in every capital city, and armies of hungry and thirsty bureaucrats.

But no policies. I think we are entitled to try to make some savings here. The EU will never be a serious player in foreign affairs and each country will always pursue its own policy. There will be a warm miasma of bluster over the troubles in the Arab World: listen to Barroso recently ‘The events unfolding in our southern neighbourhood are a rendezvous with history. Europe will rise to this challenge and support the transformation process’. Hot air. If the French car plant in Algeria is threatened it will be ‘no way, Jose’.

The Euro-realist countries, a growing list, should withdraw from Baroness Ashton’s fine-dining hot air club, and starve the ineffective bureaucracy of its expense accounts. Let’s do like the North Africans are doing: get rid of the old, unelected, thieving tyrants.

British forces captured in foreign war

Several papers report that eight British Specal Forces personnel have been captured in Libya. They have been captured, not by Gaddafi's forces, but by the rebels, who are reported to be incensed that there are foreign troops on their soil.


One of the great lessons to learn in foreign policy is that you can't make everything happen as you want it, not if you are a superpower like America nor a minor power like the UK. Cameron should grow up and accept that this is their country, and their fight. If there is a case for British military being there - protection of a minor diplomat has been suggested - they should be there  openly.

04 March, 2011

Keep the lolly, Nelly

We learn that Nelly Furtado got $1 million for singing at a Gaddafi party.

No, not a $1m fine for a musical outburst at some joyless, alcohol-free function, Ms Furtado unable to express the magnificence of the event except by loosening her vocal chords: ‘The hills are alive, with the sound of music..

No. Furtado is a professional singer and $1 million was the fee for the gig.

Now, horrified at Gaddafi, she is giving the money to charity.

What I think needs to be asked of Furtado, and indeed of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and any other of Muammar’s pals who is now appalled at the man’s actions, is ‘What have you seen recently in Gaddafi’s behaviour which you couldn’t have guessed before?’

I find myself quite tolerant of attempts to bring Gaddafi in from the cold, and receiving him as if he were a normal, worthwhile leader. That is Realpolitik and for a while it seemed to have worked. I am equally tolerant that Nelly Furtado (named Nelly Kim Furtado after a Soviet gymnast – there’s an interesting fact), whose profession is to sing for money, should do so at Gaddafi’s party. She was not there to lend her approval to his governmental style, she was there because he was paying $1 million.

So let’s drop the handwringing ‘if only I’d known’ shtick. Everyone knew what sort of person he was; it was just convenient to do business with him.

03 March, 2011

Libyan warmongering

This is the first time we have had a Prime Minister younger than me, and it may be that I am being overly critical, but Mr Cameron, in what can only be seen as a case of extreme naivety, seems to have made a complete pig’s ear of this Libyan business.

I do not myself think that it is the job of the RAF to bail out people who have freely made the decision to work for a lunatic in return for extremely high wages, but whatever Cameron and the quaintly Arabist Foreign and Commonwealth Office thinks, he could have at least enunciated his policy.

He dithered for days and now seems to have gone over the top the other way, suggesting that we arm the protesters (an act of complete folly) and operate a ‘no-fly’ zone. An American official explained this morning that this would involve attacking Libya to wipe out its air defences (an act of war), and that we would need more aeroplanes to operate it than could be contained on one airbase.

Tony Blair made the mistake of underfunding the military and then going to war. Cameron, who is making essential but stringent cuts to a military budget which had gone mad, should not then make bellicose remarks like an armchair warrior in 1914.

A clear case of where shutting up and quietly doing the essentials would be the best policy.

Larry's life

I don't know what it is with politicians and their animals to make the stories so newsworthy - maybe some atavistic connection, deep, as it were, calling to deep.

First there was Bo, the White House dog. We haven't heard much of Bo lately and must hope his prolonged connection with the Obama regime has not caused him to be making grandiose plans to invade the Senate, or create a national dog protection system.

Now it is Larry, the Downing St cat. It is said, and this has even been covered by the Italian papers, that Larry spent his first two days in his new office sleeping (must be something in the local air) and even now only rouses himself to scratch indiscriminately at passers by. He refuses to leave the immediate suite of rooms where he is lodged, and may have come to regard this as the appropriate reaction to life in the public eye. He shows no inclination to chase rats (except as above) and perhaps finds such a course to be beneath his dignity.

But it is only now that I have come to realise what the problem is. The selection procedure. Just like the unconstitutional Coalition, Larry was pushed into office by sofa government, by an oligarchy of the political class deciding, irrespective of the public mood, that this was what was needed. He should have been made to submit to the popular vote.

On a First Past The Rat system.