31 May, 2012

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, has been sentenced to 50 years imprisonment at the International Court for aiding and abetting rebels in Sierra Leone during the  10 year civil war which ended in 2002.

I wasn't going to comment on this but by popular demand (Dave Phillips in Reno Nevada) I shall do so.

I say 'at' the International Court because Mr Taylor cannot be tried by them, his misdeeds having taken place before the Court was created. Instead he is being tried by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, set up by Sierra Leone under the aegis of the United Nations. The rules of this court state that the trial must take place in Sierra Leone, but in this case it was thought proper to ignore that.

I can't say I feel comfortable about all this.

Britain and America often supply arms and assistance to rebel groups - the recent overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya is a good example. The trick is to be on the winning side, which Charles Taylor was not. America, by the way, has withdrawn from the ICC, as has India.

Taylor was not present in Sierra Leone, indeed for all I know he has never been there, but has attracted the stigma of war criminal.

Doubtless there was some nasty stuff in the Sierra Leone civil war - there usually is - and doubtless Taylor is a nasty piece of work, but is what he was up to worse than our involvement in Libya or Russia's involvement in Syria? One day Assad will be ousted; will Putin and Medvedev be dragged before the court in the Hague? I don't think so.

Then there is the problem of imposing western values on other people (I have written about this before). Suppose some African tribal leader is hauled before these unelected judges, from such places, by the way, as Nigeria and Uganda, and indicted for eating missionaries. His people have always eaten missionaries, he says, indeed it is an essential tribal ritual. But no, he is guilty because British and Americans don't eat missionaries.

Mr Taylor is being tried essentially by Sierra Leone where, let's face it, they want a guilty verdict. None of this is such as to leave one feeling comfortable.

Taylor is not the sort of person you would want your daughter to marry and not the sort to invite to a dinner party. But should we have the arrogance to allow his former opponents to condemn him? My vote is no.

30 May, 2012

Assad: still there

'Diplomatic pressure on Assad mounts' says the FT. I'm not sure that a man who can order the systematic slaughter of children is going to be too upset by having his chargé d'affaires sent home from Portugal. He is still there, and his opponents must be wondering what it would take to dislodge him.

The West cannot intervene militarily. It's not just that we are tired of war, it's that it would be opposed by Russia and in all probability China. Equally we can't arm the opposition because it would start an East-West proxy war.

The only people who can do something, whether it is intervention, assistance to the rebels or diplomatic pressure, are the Saudis and the Qataris: nations that are sufficiently strong in energy-wealth not to fear the Russians, and for whom Syria is their back yard. The people of Syria are largely Sunni, like them, although the Assad government is Alawite, a branch of the Shia sect.

The Saudis and Qataris will be nervous of a Sunni-Shia conflict, and nervous of arming the rebels but I fear if they don't the butchery will continue.

The one thing the British can do is cancel the citizenship of his wife. We certainly don't want the expense of her taking up residence.

29 May, 2012

Tax Freedom Day

Today is Tax Freedom Day in Britain. Calculated every year by the Adam Smith Institute, it takes the proportion of our incomes we pay in taxes as a percentage of the year, showing the date on which we stop working for the State and start earning for ourselves.

Today, 29th May, is two days later than last year. Australia's Tax Freedom Day was on 4th April, America's on 17th April. France's will be some time in July.

This seems a good time to consider the benefits of small government, with this useful presentation by the Centre for Policy Studies:

28 May, 2012

Greek Cyprus

I call it thus because this blog, unlike the British Government, also recognises Turkish Cyprus.

In the middle of the euro-fiasco we seem to have forgotten them.

For a long time the political class in Brussels refused to contemplate the possibility of Greece leaving the euro, saying the process was irreversible. The Greeks, taking them at their word, have said they won't administer the austerity package, so that the Eurocrats have been forced into a U-turn, saying Greece would have to leave the euro if it didn't take the medicine (or das Medikament, as it's known in Berlin).

Of course we don't know what will happen and won't until a day after the 17th June elections in Greece. But we have all been advised to do a bit of contingency planning and I expect quite a lot of that will be going on in Nicosia.

You see, the Greek Cypriot economy is inextricably linked to the Greek one, and if Greece leaves the euro, Greek Cyprus will have to as well.

So what will it be? The New Drachma? Actually Cypriots have a rather interesting alternative. Their currency has never been the drachma (in my opinion Cyprus isn't Greek) but following its long period of Ottoman Turkish rule was run by the British from 1879 (annexed in 1914) and the currency was the Cypriot pound.

The Cypriot pound was divided into 20 shillings and each shilling into 9 piastres, making 180 piastres to the pound.

In 1955, sixteen years before Britain, the Cypriots decimalised, with 1000 mils to the pound. This excellent system subsisted until 1st January 2008 when they joined the ill-fated euro.

The solution is simple: they just revert to the Cypriot pound.

Incidentally the British bases on Cyprus, Akrotiri and Dekhelia, which are sovereign territory, are the only instances of  British territory using the euro. Poor things. I hope we are doing something to protect them.

26 May, 2012

Not this time, Silvio

Silvio Berlusconi is trying to start a movement to make the President of Italy electable by the people. Nothing wrong with that - a popular mandate would be far better than him or her being elected by the corrupt, time-serving envelope receivers that constitute the Italian parliament.

It's just that you don't have to read too deeply between the lines to realise what Silv is up to: he wants to be President himself and reckons he could get the popular vote.

No, caro. This blog never thought the man's private life made him unfit for the job of Prime Minister - the problem with Silvio is that he never actually did that job, his tenure being characterised by ineffectual posturing.

But the job of President is a different one to that of Prime Minister: it involves the non-political representation of 60 million people. The President is a figurehead and an example and Silvio's past life excludes him from the position.

Also he is a voice from the past, and the people want something new.

Berlusconi should retire to his girls and his villas and his yacht. If he wants to campaign for an elected President, he should undertake not to be a candidate himself. It was fun while it lasted, ma basta!

A Scoop!

This blog has succeeded in obtaining the menu for the next European summit:

Crudités (raw vegetables)
Pasta Povera (poor man's pasta with garlic and oil)
Kleftiko (Greek robber's mutton)
Crème Anglaise (to remind them that some countries are not in the euro)

Mrs. Merkel to bring her own cheese.

Er.... in your dreams.

Menu before the crash

The menu for the last dinner on the Titanic recently sold for £76,000. What would the menu for the last Euro-summit fetch?

Last week's was not the last, time for a few more tuck-ins before it goes down, but the excellent Marco Zatterin of La Stampa has discovered the menu

Lobster with asparagus
Fillets of San Pietro with vegetables
Chocolate mousse

He says nothing about the wines, but describes the meal as 'moderately sober'.

25 May, 2012

Double your money?

Thanks to the excellent people at Zero Hedge who have followed the announcements of the rescue of the Spanish Bank Bankia

  • Bank Of Spain Formally Nationalizes Bankia, Says Insolvent Bank Is "Solvent", Adds There Is No Cause For Concern, Zero Hedge, May 9

  • Spain is taking over Bankia by converting its 4.5 billion euros of preferred shares in the group’s parent company into ordinary shares, BusinessWeek, May 21

  • Spain said on Wednesday its rescue of problem lender Bankia would cost at least 9 billion euros ($11 billion), as the government tries to clean up a banking system that threatens to drag the country deeper into the euro zone crisis, Reuters, May 23

  • Bankia SA will have to ask the Spanish government for more than 15 billion euros as part of its effort to restore its financial health, state-owned news agency EFE reported Thursday, citing financial sources, Dow Jones, May 24

  • Note that the cost more than trebled in three days. Almost as bad as the Olympic Games.

    Bankia is a conglomerate of seven banks which include the wonderfully named Caja Rioja.

    I can add to all that today's FT:

    Spain to inject up to €19bn into Bankia.

    Any more for any more?


    The Eurovision Song Contest final is tomorrow, and looks to be about as much fun as everything else with the prefix 'Euro'.

    Spain has reportedly told its entrant Pastora Soler not to win, because the winner has to hold the next contest and Spain can't afford it.

    The UK also can't afford it, but our solution is to field jowly septuagenarian crooner Engelbert Humperdink (formerly Arnold Dorsey).

    Let's hope it works.

    24 May, 2012

    A Liberal Haiku

    This blog has received a transcript of a speech to be made by Nick Clegg, described as Deputy Prime Minister, to the lucky people of Berlin.

    The full transcript is here, and I should give a health warning: it's ghastly stuff.

    But amidst such tosh as

    Management of financial risk, fiscal discipline, labour market reform; these are not just different chapters in an economics textbook. They are closely connected problems with consequences for us all. (getaway, Nick)

    This is a European crisis. It must be solved at the European level.

    We cannot let this crisis shake our commitment to Europe’s big idea – that union is worth pursuing as a means to peace and prosperity alike.

    I found this gem:

    The tree is falling, and we are pruning one leaf at a time.

    This is so poetic, so beautiful, that I leave it to you in the form of a Japanese Haiku

    The euro tree falls

    But Nick Clegg is pruning it

    One leaf at a time

    Just think about that, the next time you wonder why this fool hasn't yet apologised for suggesting we join the euro in the first place.


    To celebrate the new millennium European leaders agreed to make Europe 'the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion' by 2010. Having agreed that, they all breathed a sigh of relief, shook hands and sat down to lunch to celebrate the great things they were doing for their people. It was called the Lisbon Agenda because that is where they had the lunch were meeting.

    Of course by 2010 Europe had actually slid down the list of competitive nations or areas of the world.

    Why? The reason is that for most politicians in Europe, growth means government spending (you remember Gordon Brown used to call it 'investment'). Growth means more government not less.

    Of course in the places we are competing with, the Far East, America and increasingly the Third World, growth means a refreshing absence of regulation and political interference. Perhaps the key words in the declaration are 'better jobs and greater social cohesion': someone slipped those in so it wouldn't matter if governments simply borrowed more money and handed it to the special interest groups in their countries in return for votes - that's how European politics works.

    Now growth is back on the agenda. Leaders met in Brussels, some of them having just met at the G8 in America, and decided....er....to make a decision in June. Yes! A success!

    I don't think we'll get a decision on anything in June, either. What they'll do is agree more infrastructure, more grands projets. Europe will become a dystopia of superb motorways and no trucks to drive on them.

    And the money for the grands projets? Yes, borrowed of course. Greece will be invited to borrow money for high speed trains while being made to cut back on the health service.

    This is Europe today: a dithering, self-important, corporatist political class which just hustles to stay in power at the expense of the poor.

    21 May, 2012


    David Cameron has made a couple of speeches lecturing the Eurozone on its plans, and offering warnings to Greece. His predecessor, Gordon Brown, was much the same and earned a reputation for hypocrisy.

    I must say if I were a Greek or other Eurozone voter and found some mouthy youngster, who had made a complete cock of his own country's economy, telling me what to do, I should do the exact opposite.

    This is a good time to shut up, Dave.

    Robin Gibb

    We mourn the death of Robin Gibb, far too young at 62


    Sympathy to the people of Emilia - in the Bologna region - for the earthquake which has killed seven people. The aftershocks are still being felt.

    I was there the day before. Strangely, when there was an earthquake at my home in Umbria, I was in Rome; and when there was a 'quake in Rome, I was in Umbria, so I have never experienced the phenomenon.

    Not that I'm sorry.

    20 May, 2012

    Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

    Being away for a few days, I missed news of the death of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the greatest exponent of German Lieder, aged 86

    Donna Summer

    And the sad death of Donna Summer, pioneer of disco music, aged 63

    Referendum trick

    There has been a bit of talk about the possibility of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. What is being said is that the Labour Party will support the idea so as to try to expose the Conservatives’ differences on Europe, and that the Liberals will approve it thinking that the answer wil be yes and it will put the matter to bed. Thus Cameron will be bounced into offering it in his manifesto. Most people assume I am a supporter of the idea, but I’m not so sure I am.

    I start from the basis of the conclusion I came to in 1991, that Britain would be better off, both financially and democratically, if it left the EU. Nothing that has happened since then has made me reconsider: if anything I feel it more strongly.

    And it is hard to dispute the legality or constitutionality of a referendum. The matter is important enough to be put to the people, and there is the precedent of the referendum held in 1975 – so far the only nation-wide referendum ever held in Britain – when we decided to stay in.

    So: important and constitutionally defensible. It is only then that the problems start.

    First is the question, which will be asked by the government. Now, David Cameron has tried to spin himself as a eurosceptic, but in my view all his actions since coming to power and even before, point to a man who is quite comfortable in the EU. He wants us to trust him to be fair on this, and I, frankly, don’t.

    It’s not just the nature of the question. I don’t suppose Cameron will try ‘Do you want us to leave the EU, with all that that will entail in terms of lost jobs and being politically isolated, or do you want to pursue the broad sunlit uplands of prosperity and peace with our partners, our European brothers?’ – although with most of the administrations since 1975 that is roughly what you would have got.

    No, it’s the practicality of the matter. Cameron won’t call it ‘leaving the EU’ – he calls it ‘renegotiating the terms of our membership’. But every time we have asked for changes, the answer has been ‘Non’. The only difference this time is that it will be ‘Nein’. They don’t want Britain to become more efficient and prosperous by opting out of the ugly bits.

    So the only occasion we can renegotiate is when they have something to lose. If Cameron had held his nerve on the Fiscal Pact, rather than giving in immediately and allowing them to use civil servants, partly paid for by Britain, to draft its terms and put it into practice, if only he hadn’t rolled over, we could have had that as a bargaining point: if you want your Fiscal Pact Britain opts out of the Common Agricultural and Fisheries policies, the working time directive, the health and safety nonsense which they pretend is part of the single market, the common policing, the European Arrest Warrant, European Army and all the rest.

    Now, we can only have a negotiating point, a point d’appui, if they decide to have another grand treaty. And they aren’t likely to in the foreseeable future.

    So Cameron reckons he can negotiate something simple and easy – cheaper biscuits in meetings and an undertaking the European Army won’t invade Norway -  and then put it to the people as the best that could be negotiated, thus silencing debate on the subject for a generation.

    He has to be exposed and resisted. The only suitable question is ‘Do you want to stay in the EU or leave it?’.

    Anything else is a con-trick on the British people.

    15 May, 2012


    An interesting little tale reaches me.

    When Greece did its 'restructuring' (which ordinary people call a default) it told private investors that they had to take a 75% hit on their holdings. These amounted to some €177 billion. However a small amount, we think around €6bn, was written not under Greek law but under English Law (the one used internationally for these instruments).

    €450 million, a small amount in the context of things, of these 'foreign law bonds' became due today.

    It is thought, but not known, that these bonds were held by the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund,
    Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM). This outfit is worth $600 billion, and owns something like 2% of all the shares in Europe - ie pretty chunky. Now NBIM was annoyed at the Greek default, thinking the eurozone should look after its own affairs, and that it was disgraceful that the European Central Bank should remain immune from the default: the ECB, despite holding a lot of the paper, took no loss at all - everyone else paid for it.

    So, it is rumoured, the NBIM said if it wasn't paid today, it would sue Greece in the London courts, which would have defaulted everything.

    The Greeks have paid up. A Greek spokesman said it 'would not have any bearing on future decisions regarding other similar bonds'.

    This is of course nonsense. The other €5.5 billion who have held out against the limited default - for most people it is a cardinal rule that you treat all similar creditors equally - now know they are in with a chance.

    And every other investor knows that if the Eurozone pull this kind of stunt again they shouldn't go along with it.

    And Mrs. Merkel knows that now if the ECB makes a socking great loss on a defaulting country's bonds, it is the Germans who are going to have to pay.

    It's going to have a big impact, in my view.

    The new team

    Much was reported about the governing duarchy of Germany and France, named Merkozy. What are we to call the new pair? Merlande? - it sounds too much like the French for the fish, whiting.


    No. I prefer the simple, but eloquent......


    Each silver lining has a cloud

    Hate bankers' bonuses? Here's some good news for you. According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research bonuses have fallen from their 2007/8 peak of £11.5 billion down to £2.3 billion this year.

    Like spending on health and education? Here's bad news for you. Because of the drop in the bonuses the government's income is down by £4 billion.

    More Greece

    My thanks to the Telegraph's incomparable MATT.

    The latest wheeze - I'm sure you guessed it - is to have an unelected government in Greece, or rather one elected by a German woman who knows what's best for them

    14 May, 2012


    Israel is 64 years old today.

    I don't suppose many people hearing David Ben-Gurion read the declaration of independence in 1948 seriously believed it would last this long. And of course many people wish it hadn't.

    This blog is broadly (but not unconditionally) supportive of Israel although it acknowledges that the Israelis make it as difficult as possible to be so.

    My advice would be for Israel to try to stay out of the news, although this will be hard. The West may need Israel to attack Iran this year, just as it needed Israel to initiate attacks on Suez in 1956.

    Let's hope not.

    German Hollandaise

    A bad night for Mrs Merkel, with her CDU having its worst result in Nord-Rhein Westfalia (NRW) since the war. NRW is the most populous region in Germany.

    Norbert Roettgen, CDU leader in NRW, fell on his sword. He had been regarded as heir apparent to Mrs Merkel. The region, or Land, is now governed by a clear SPD-Green majority, led by Hannelore Kraft, who is now being openly described as a competitor to Mrs Merkel in next year's national elections.

    Other fallout has been that the Greens in Germany are saying that the austerity must end, and the PdL and IdV in Italy are warning Mario Monti that he too must change.

    This is rather as forecast. Hollande-ism is sweeping Europe, and we haven't seen the end of it yet.

    13 May, 2012


    Beginning a discussion of Greece in the euro one thinks of the proverbial Irishman asked for directions, who says 'I wouldn't start from here'. Ollie Rehn, the Budget Commissioner, has stated that they knew at the time that Greece had fiddled the figures to get into the euro (by the way, documents in Helmut Kohl's office confirm that they also knew Italy had fiddled its figures). What you have to remember is that the euro was and is a political, not an economic project. It has no grounding in economics at all.

    Equally, one can say that Greece (and Italy), having been let in, should have been told that it had ten years to sort out the corruption, failure to collect taxes, the inflexible labour market and of course its borrowing levels.

    But that is what should have happened. Events are now running their course.

    As I have often mentioned, the European project is at its worst when it comes up against democracy: the two don't mix. No one, for example, would have come up with the daft system of the civil servants presenting laws to a tiny group of the uninterested if they hadn't been terrified that the populations simply couldn't be trusted to pass them. Now the Greeks have come up with an unsatisfactory election result (unsatisfactory, that is, to the bureaucrats). Their system is that in order of the number of votes cast, the parties can try to form a government, and the top three have failed to do so. Greece should proceed to another election.

    However, the President, Karolos Papoulias, has summoned them all to last ditch talks today to try to form some sort of administration. Mr. Papoulias has the look of a man who has received a one-sided 'phone call from Angela Merkel. The latest word is that these talks have failed. Those opposed to the austerity programme pointed out that the majority of voters had opted against it, so they would be letting the people down if they conceded it (it's a bugger, this democracy business, isn't it?).

    Two things can happen when there is a big, abnormal vote for one political wing or another, and it goes to a second vote: one is that people, worried about upheaval, vote for the traditional parties again. The second possibility is that people who voted the traditional way now perceive that there is an option, it is OK to vote for the extreme, and so the balance is forced further away from the norm. Opinion polls suggest the latter: the Far Left, who are opposed to austerity, will gain dramatically.

    We suppose now that Greece must leave the euro, and that, once the markets know that this can happen, the spotlight will move to Spain, Portugal and Italy. For Mrs. Merkel not to allow Greece to leave, she would have to stump up a lot of German cash, and she comes up for election next year. To leave, Greece would have to default on its debts (which, to a small extent it has already done). I hope there is a plan B to allow this to happen as quietly as possible.

    To Merkel, Schaeuble and the unmourned Sarkozy, we must say that their dithering and their blind reliance on dogma have earned them this result. Their unwillingness to change tack has been as damaging as the Greeks' unwillingness to modernise their political system.

    As a footnote, let me say that you will hear on the BBC that there is a danger that the Far Right will gain influence: this is a party called Golden Dawn which makes funny salutes and hardly gets any votes. Ignore the BBC: the danger to Greece is the Far Left. Greece is in for a very difficult time whether it leaves the euro or not: what is needs is a party which can guide it on the road to financial rectitude, albeit at a pace it can stomach. And that is not the Far Left.

    Democracy: a lesson

    Democracy prize of the year so far goes to the village of Cimolais in the northern Italian region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, population 507.

    The mayor, Gino Bertolo, found that he was the only candidate for his re-election and was concerned that if he stood unopposed he wouldn't get enough votes, so he persuaded his best friend, Fabio Borsatti, to stand as well.

    I’m sure you are ahead of me: Borsatti won, despite all his relatives having voted for Bertolo, by 160 to 117. ‘I never wanted to be mayor’, he said.

    By the way, as a broad average, 70% of the population are of voting age, so that looks like a turnout of 78%. In the recent UK local elections it was 32%.

    09 May, 2012


    Today is Europe Day, when we celebrate..er..

    See the post below.

    08 May, 2012

    Europe: the state of play

    Now seven eurozone governments have been toppled since the crisis: France, Italy, Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands. There is a palpable move, not just to the left, but to anti-austerity. What will be perceived as the Hollande effect is sweeping its way across the continent.

    In Greece, the two main parties, centre left and centre right, had clung together in a coalition led by a Brussels nominee. Following the election they can no longer form a majority. The axis of Greek politics is no longer left - right but pro austerity - anti austerity.

    In Italy people are asking why they must have austerity if France has rejected it. The PdL, the party started by Mr Berlusconi, which did badly in last weekend's regional elections, has said that it cannot support ratification of the fiscal pact unless the powers of the European Central Bank are widened to intervene in debt auctions and issue eurobonds. They have said they will force out Monti's government by the autumn.

    Spain has said it has to do something about its banks, which have fantastically high bad debts, but of course hasn't the money to do it.

    Ireland, seeing the Hollande effect, could fail to ratify the fiscal pact in a referendum.

    So what are the mathematics? If we move from austerity to fiscal expansion, who will pay for it? The German economy is showing signs of slowing down, Merkel's coalition is weakening and they are unlikely to be in the mood to offer more generous terms to Greece or anyone else. Nor are they keen on printing more money, allowing these countries to pay their debts with devalued euros. Volker Kauder, one of Mrs Merkel's closest allies, has said 'Germany could end up paying for the Socialist victory in France with more guarantees, more money. And that is not acceptable. Germany is not here to finance French election promises.'

    The majority view in Southern Europe seems to be that they want to stay in the euro but want to behave as they always have and the Germans to pay the bills. It may become clear quite soon that this is no longer an option.

    It doesn't look good.

    07 May, 2012


    What with all the politics yesterday I forgot that it was the 20th anniversary of the death of Marlene Dietrich.

    Here she is singing the original of the song the British stole from the Germans

    The results

    The elections went more or less as forecast below: Hollande, fiasco in Greece, minor headache in Schleswig.

    Hollande made a speech saying members of the eurozone who were fed up with austerity could take their lead from France, which sent the markets into freefall.

    Good start, François.

    06 May, 2012

    Elections elections

    The polls are open today for the people of Schleswig Holstein. British Statesman Lord Palmerston is reported to have said 'Only three people have ever understood the Schleswig Holstein business: the Prince Consort, who is dead, a German professor, who has gone mad, and I, who have forgotten all about it.'

    A bit simpler this time and the vote may cause some minor headache for Mrs Merkel's coalition, but not as much as the other two votes today, in France and Greece.

    Hollande still seems the favourite in France and has vowed to overturn the fiscal pact. Whilst in practice he is unlikely to be so revolutionary, there will be trouble, no doubt about it.

    In Greece people are flocking away from the two traditional parties, neither of whom is likely to gain any kind of majority. Together they might have enough votes, but they are, we had thought, opposed to each other. Probably one of those occasions where fundamental beliefs come second to keeping power.

    By the end of today there will not have been a revolution in Europe but the political map will have altered and the ruling class will have got the jitters.

    05 May, 2012

    UK vote: the fallout

    Only one of the ten cities decided to have an elected mayor, the Conservatives fared badly (not appallingly, but badly) but won the London mayoral contest, just. Turnout was very low.

    Mr. Cameron is in the doghouse with his supporters. Doubtless he has plenty of advisers, but here is my take on the thing.

    I think he should man up a bit.

    Not many people like these metrosexual types who change nappies and erect flat pack furniture, and nobody wants one as PM. Now, more than ever, he needs to look decisive. He chickened out of holding a second election two years ago, nearly looked good when he vetoed the fiscal treaty, then gave in almost immediately and allowed them to use EU resources for something which wasn't an EU treaty. Since his election he has blamed everything on the previous government or his LibDem partners, and it won't wash any more.

    The first thing he needs to do is sack Jeremy Hunt, for the simple reason the man is a pest. You can't open a newspaper without reading something negative about him. I learned the other day that he is an expert ballroom dancer. Dave: these people are all right in their way but as politicians they are not sound. Look at Vince Cable.

    Having sacked Hunt he should maintain balance in the government by sacking Cable as well, eliminating both of their departments (Culture and Business) which are a waste of resources. He should tell the rest of the cabinet that anyone else who looks as if he can swing his hips to the lambada will be viewed with suspicion.

    After that he needs a success: as any batsman will tell you, to gain confidence against the bowling you need to hit a six over the long-on boundary. I would suggest withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights, but any decisive move against any part of Europe will be popular.

    But he needs to do something.

    03 May, 2012

    Election fever 2

    This is how it's done: the French Presidential run-off debate lasted for an extraordinary 2 hrs 50 minutes and was seen by 17.9 million people. Wow!

    Whether this includes people who turned it on for the first two minutes, went to the Café des Sports for a couple of stiff Ricards and returned for the end, I don't know. But it is impressive, nonetheless.

    The election is on Sunday (as is the Greek one).

    Election fever (not)

    A fair bit of voting going on in Britain, with local council elections, mayoral elections in London, Liverpool and Salford and ten cities voting as to whether they want an elected mayor.

    I think they should be asking how much the mayor would cost. Is it another layer of bureaucracy or would he or she actually do something useful for the city? I'd want to be fairly certain about this, but I rather expect most people don't care too much and will stay at home.

    Boris looks as if he will edge Ken in London, which is good news if you like double decker buses.

    In the meantime, today is the 33rd anniversary of Margaret Thatcher becoming PM, and tomorrow will be the 15th anniversary of Tony Blair getting the job.

    01 May, 2012

    Fit and Proper

    I have grave doubts abut the Murdochs, as I have outlined in previous posts, but we are now producing a raft of quite uninformed criticism of them which I believe may be counter-productive.

    The Culture Committee, a concept so absurd it could have come from the pages of Orwell, has decided that Rupert Murdoch is not a ‘fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company’.

    Of course none of these people has been even within a large sniff of the head of an international company, and, having had a look, seem to be careful not to list any former business positions they may have held (probably none).

    They are not authorised (nor qualified) to judge whether someone can be the head of a company. They may (just) be authorised to pronounce on whether someone should hold a broadcasting licence.

    Here we get to the nitty gritty. For myself, I would have approved the News International bid for the equity it did not hold in BSkyB, for the simple reason that the broadcasting market already contains a quasi-monopoly player – the BBC -  and a bit of competition from a medium sized player would be good for the consumer and good for the market.

    The only caveat I would have made to this approval is if the Murdochs were deemed not fit and proper people to hold a UK broadcasting licence. This isn’t completely easy: there has been ‘phone hacking (my guess is that this was more common among the other tabloids than we yet know) and it seems clear they have lied to a commons committee about their investigations into it.

    I think it possible that Murdoch and his son James did not know precisely what was going on but that the hacking was a result of the pressures to produce results in a culture they introduced, and that they failed to install the management systems to prevent their employees’ activities from becoming illegal.

    But....I think the hacked people – who had their messages hacked by News International staff knowing their ‘phone numbers and guessing the password for messages – have only themselves to blame if they were public figures or people in charge of secrets. This does not of course include the family of Milly Dowler the murdered schoolgirl, but we now know that incident was not nearly as bad as it was initially made out to be.

    So the Murdochs are guilty. Exactly what they are guilty of is another matter.  Hugh Grant not changing his password regularly is like someone leaving his house unlocked who is subsequently burgled. The burglar is guilty, of course, but the victim is an idiot.

    Against which we have to set the obvious good that Rupert Murdoch has done for the British Press. People with long memories may remember that it resisted all new technology, that jobs were passed from father to son, that no one could say a bad word about the union: all these things were the signs of a very unhealthy free press, and Murdoch, single-handedly, saved us from that.

    I would have allowed the BskyB bid probably 70/30, the caveat being unless Murdoch were to be found not a fit and proper person to hold a broadcasting licence. For me the second matter – the fit and proper issue - is closer, but I would have let him carry on 55/45.

    Between two stools

    A most enlightening article in the New York Times tells the story of Fotis I Antonopoulos, who tried to launch a business in Athens called OliveShop.com, selling olive oil and other products over the Internet. The wall of bureaucracy meant that it took him ten months to get started, having to collect forms from all over the city.

    The banks professed themselves unable to process credit card payments - he set up a system with the American PayPal in ten minutes. A law says he could not have a warehouse in Athens, so he took a shop front and boarded up the windows. Hoards of Inspectors called, two of them unable to agree on the legality of having a spiral staircase, and finally telling him to decide himself.

    Inspectors said parts of the website had to be written exclusively in Greek, and the team vainly tried to explain that hardly anyone outside Greece was able to read the alphabet, and that the site was intended for foreign customers.

    Finally they insisted that since it was a food business, Anonopoulos and his partners should submit lung X-rays and stool samples.

    Of course, Mr. Antonopoulos had refused to pay what is known as the 'speed tax': the bribes needed to bypass regulations, even necessary ones.

    Humorous though it is, there is a lesson here for all of us. Greek unemployment is 50% and getting worse, yet regulations mean that new businesses find it difficult or impossible to get going. The same is true in Italy and Spain, and true to a smaller extent in all other European economies. Encouraging growth, which is the buzzword at the moment, is not just a question of government spending and the money supply.

    It is a question of making your country an attractive place in which to do business.