28 December, 2012

We'd like to hear less of..

As we come to the end of the old year we begin to think about what we are looking for in the next. And what we are not looking for. Here are five people I'd like to hear less of in 2013

Hugh Grant. A B-movie heartthrob, his mobile 'phone was hacked by the News of the World because he was either too stupid or too lazy to change the access code for the message service. From this self-inflicted trouble he has worked tirelessly to have newspapers regulated: to destroy the free press which is so important to our democracy.

Pippa Middleton. It was never going to be a good idea for the little sister to try to achieve fame or fortune on the back of her sibling marrying well. And for such a reason. The Japanese word bakkushan means a woman who looks better from the back than from the front. She should have stuck at that.

Anyone called Kardashian. What are they famous for?

Brian May. Unable to rest with simply being a multi-millionaire rockstar, May has reinvented himself as an expert on animals, world fauna's answer to Bono. Let's hope it stops.

Alexander 'Boris' Johnston. Wordy self-publicist who wants to be leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. In my view he will never achieve either job. He is poor at detail and too lazy to see anything through. He is openly, even boastfully, a philanderer, and has paid a famous journalist to have an abortion. The public will begin to see that you can't trust the promises of a man who thinks himself too important to obey his marriage vows and who is prepared to humiliate his wife for his public image.

RIP Fontella

Fontella Bass from 1965. She has died aged 72

24 December, 2012

Happy Christmas

A very happy Christmas to everyone.

In hospital over Christmas are three towering figures of the '80s and 90s, Margaret Thatcher (87), Nelson Mandela (94) and George H Bush (88). I wish them all well, but it makes me feel old.

23 December, 2012

Fox hunting

'Jail Fox Hunters for five years!', screams the chief executive of the RSPCA, Gavin Grant.

I remember once being at one of those upper middle class dinner parties in a village with a double-barrelled name, like a West Indian fast bowler: Tarrant Gunville or Kingston Deverill or some such. Attending was a crusty old soldier, a Major General, I think, who had been appointed head of the RSPCA. On my asking, he explained to a hushed table that he thought they shouldn't hunt foxes.

The other guests were astounded. We had all contributed to, or helped, the RSPCA over the years, regarding it as a sort of country thing. It seemed a betrayal. For myself I have no taste for hunting but, like most people who live in the country, regard foxes as pests and don't much care what happens to them.

I think it clear that the RSPCA's hysteria about this is quasi political and that it is in breach of its charter and its obligations under the Charities Act.

Having said that, rightly or wrongly, fox hunting is illegal. Fox hunting is not a basic right like democracy or freedom to worship, for which a Robin Hood style campaign of disobedience is permissible, it is simply a pastime which our elected representatives have decided is wrong. Those who indulge in it are breaking the law, and whilst five years seems on the harsh side, they must accept the consequences of doing so.

Monti speaks; so do I

Mario Monti, the now-resigned unelected Prime Minister of Italy, has said that he does not care to involve himself in the forthcoming elections, but he would, however, be prepared to act as Prime Minister.

Pretty decent of him. Oddly enough, I am the same. This business of putting yourself in front of the proletariat, with them sometimes, incredibly, disagreeing, really holds no attraction. Far better to let the weasels get on with all the sordid baby kissing, speeches (to the proletariat! As if they could understand!) and votes and so on, while just doing the senior management thing.

I would be prepared to sacrifice myself in this way for my own nation, or, as an expert, sort out America, Syria or Italy, indeed; anywhere where the kudos, salary and wine cellar met my expectations.

Monti could expect to come third or fourth in the Italian elections whereas I would have come first, which is why there is no need to go through all this grubby popular vote business.

Vote Appoint Tim Now!

Your health service

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson once said that the National Health Service was the nearest thing the British had to a religion. I sometimes think the British have condemned themselves to living in the past: either reliving the glories of the Second World War or the nationalisation programme of the 1945 government.

Some people liked the production but I was horrified at the Olympic opening ceremony doing a celebration of the NHS, in front of bemused foreigners many of whom had far better systems.

We read today that the Alexandra Hospital in Redditch has apologised to 38 families for mistreatment of their relatives. One person died of starvation while being treated in the hospital. Redditch is not in remote Scotland or the poor North East but in relatively wealthy Worcestershire.

If you find this astonishing in 21st century Britain, look at the figures from the Office of National Statistics:

In 2011, 43 people starved to death and 287 were recorded as being malnourished when they died in hospital. 558 people died in a state of severe hydration in state-run hospitals. 78 hospital patients were killed by bedsores and 21,696 patients were suffering from septicaemia when they died; this usually occurs from infected wounds. In a hospital.

It really is about time we recognised that the system we have doesn't work. But in the face of all the evidence the British believe it is the best in the world. We used to believe this about the police and are only now being disabused of this. With both institutions we have taken our eye off the ball. We could use a few politicians with enough honesty to tell us the truth.

21 December, 2012

Not all good

Well, the French village of Bugarach has survived, but then again so has Brussels.

Nothing in this world, apocalypse or no apocalypse, is perfect.

20 December, 2012

Italy update

Mario Monti will decide - or rather announce - this weekend what he is going to do about the forthcoming elections.

It seems quite clear that he is not going to do anything so grubby as put himself up for election by the people: European Man (EM) isn't too big on this democracy fad. Even if he did, the party list system which operates in Italy means you can't vote to exclude a particular candidate - if you vote for a party, they decide who to allocate your vote to. To involve yourself in politics without even being prepared to go through this corrupt little system, to my mind rather defines a man.

Monti will lend his name to a centrist grouping led by Pier Ferdinando Casini and Luca Cordero di Montezemolo.

So what will happen? At the moment the polls show the Left, or at least centre-left, led by Pier Luigi Bersani, to be on nearly 30% of the vote, which by Italian terms would mean a clear majority (you get a bonus of seats free, just for winning). Beppe Grillo, the populist comedian (how I long to use these words about a British politician!) is on 15%, but wait! Look at Silvio! In a couple of weeks Berlusconi has put on 3%, and seems to be heading to 20% and more.

The last election gave

Centre right coalition     47%
Centre left coalition       38%
Centre                               6%

but it seems clear that with Monti and Montezemolo, Chairman of Ferrari, together with Casini, the son-in-law of the rich and powerful Francesco Caltagirone, owner of Il Messaggero newspaper, the centre will do well next time.
But who would a Monti-led centre take its votes from? Is Bersani at the leftish end of his party and thus the extreme left would be for him no matter what? If he makes soothing noises to the centre will the Left stick to their guns and offer a coalition, rather than supporting him directly? Will the Silvio bandwagon regain its former momentum? Will Beppe Grillo collapse?

There are now 8 weeks between now and the election. It looks to be interesting

End of the beginning?

Well, it's tomorrow. The end of the world, I mean.

Of course it is easy to laugh at this, particularly since if you are wrong, there will be nobody to say 'I told you so'. Except those people in that French mountain village whom the ancient Mayans unerringly picked out for saving.

In case you are worried, the Independent newspaper publishes a critique of the doomsayers' understanding of the calendar. You may think you want to read it, but I'll just give you a taste: '21st December, 2012 is a 'round date', at least in the Long Count. We refer to it as ie it is the 13 Bak'tun period ending (an amount of 13 times 144,000 days comes to pass) since the 'era day', the creation of the current world in classic Maya mythology.

The conclusion is that whilst it is the end of something, it is not the end of the world.

It's probably best just to pour yourself a stiff drink.

17 December, 2012

The happy couple

It is said that Metternich, hearing of Talleyrand's death, said 'I wonder what he meant by that', and political observers will be saying the same of Silvio Berlusconi, who has found time during his election campaigning to announce his engagement to Francesca Pascale, nearly 50 years his junior.

Francesca was a showgirl appearing on local TV stations. She was a regular on TeleCapri's programme Telecafone (trans. 'Oaf or Lout-TV') where she sang, amongst other things, 'Se abbassi la mutanda si alza l'auditel' ('if you drop your knickers the ratings go up': it's probably by Puccini).

Silvio, however, is still married, not having finalised the divorce with Veronica Lario.

This should put a couple more euros on the bill.

15 December, 2012

Gun control

The whole world has seen the news from Connecticut,  where schoolchildren and their teachers have been gunned down.

The perpetrator's mother was a teacher. He apparently used her guns to commit the massacre. A teacher's guns.

There will be the usual calls for gun control and they will have the usual result. Opponents of control will say that is not guns which kill people, but people who kill people.

They ignore the problem. I could easily have a gun. In fact the landlord of a London pub once offered to sell me one of his. But I don't, so every time I feel homicidal, and I probably shall with the BBC's forthcoming programme on Europe, I can't just reach for a firearm. There is no culture in Britain or most other countries (outside Switzerland) of ordinary people owning guns (violent criminals, yes: police and soldiers, yes: the rest of us, no).

To stop these outrages, even to limit them, the culture in America would have to change: guns would have to become a rarity, an oddity. That change would take a generation. I am not saying it is impossible, but it is very, very unlikely.

Act of succession

Charles Moore asks this question in the Telegraph:

'Will the heir to the throne be allowed to have a gay marriage? If he is male, will his husband be King, too? If, by surrogacy, their union is blessed with a child, will that child, though of the blood royal, be excluded from the succession? If so, how, in the name of equality, can that be right?'

This blog believes that if  a homosexual couple wants to call its union 'marriage', there is no harm done in allowing it. Although most of the running in this has not been made by homosexual lobby groups but by politicians wanting to seem worthy.

It seems they have a bit more thinking to do.

13 December, 2012

Press Regulation

Anyone who agreed with Lord Leveson that the press should be regulated by an organisation led by a government appointee must surely change their mind following two reports in the Daily Telegraph.

The first is about the investigation into Sergeant Danny Nightingale covered here. At first the Ministry of Defence threatened to issue a D Notice, even though it was obvious that there was no issue of national security at stake. The MoD were holding Nightingale incommunicado, and told the Telegraph that he didn't want his name released. This proved to be an outright lie. Nightingale was desperate to defend himself against the conviction and wanted to get it into the public domain. The MoD knew that this was an unsafe conviction and tried to muzzle the preses so as not to look bad.

Secondly, the Telegraph made inquiries as to the honesty of the expenses claimed by the culture secretary Maria Miller. Ms Miller's aide told the reporter that Miller had regular meetings on the Leveson report 'I'm just going to flag that up' and suggested the reporter get approval from high up in his own paper. The Telegraph has also been threatened by the Prime Minister's Director of Communications Craig Oliver, also saying that Ms Miller was involved in the press regulation discussions - hint.

Mr Cameron was right to say that the press should not be regulated by any arm of government. Now he knows he can't even trust himself. Congratulations to the Telegraph on not allowing itself to be bullied out of two stories, both in the public interest.

12 December, 2012


This from the FT's Guy Dinmore in Rome:

'The German government has warned Silvio Berlusconi not to target Berlin in the run up to elections..'

'Guido Westerwelle, foreign minister, said the government would not interfere in Italy's elections'

Notice here the word 'warned' and the gracious tone with which Germany says it will not interfere with the functioning of another democratic nation. Pretty decent of it, don't you think?

To continue, Angela Merkel said 'I support what the government of Mario Monti has done in introducing reforms....so the Italian people will no doubt make their choice to ensure Italy continues on the right track'.

The current administration in Germany doesn't do leadership very well. They made a mess of their relations with Greece and have made themselves unpopular in several other countries. It is entirely their own fault if they become the butt of the electoral campaign in Italy and it is quite understandable if the Italian electorate were to resent her replacement of an elected leader with her own man. Monti has become increasingly unpopular here.

The sort of statement quoted above just makes things worse. Now, if Monti stands in the election, many will see him as the puppet of Angela Merkel.

Sometimes in politics, the best thing to do is remain silent.

A great day

The date is 12/12/12 or, if you are an American, who puts the day and month the other way round, 12/12/12. This amazing Coincidental Date Thing (CDT) happens....er....every so often.

The Guardian reports one Don Goodman, president of the Dozenal Society of America, saying the world would be better off with a duodecimal, or dozenal if you are American and can't spell that, system. Unfortunately the twit didn't realise that the British were there long before him with 12 shillings to the pound and twelve inches to the foot.

In the Mayan Calendar there are nine days to go until the end of the world, so convinced Mayans like myself will not be wasting money on Christmas presents.

And today, on 12/12/12, at 12 noon, the Pope will be sending his first tweet. Unfortunately, his native language being German, the entire 140 characters are taken up with a single word, meaning 'Peace in zer vurld, dummkopfs, or zair vill be trouble'.

11 December, 2012

Signs of the times

From the UK census:

In the decade to 2011 the immigrant population in Britain rose by 2.9m, roughly 5% of the population just in those ten years.

Only 59% declared themselves as Christians. 25% say they have no religion. 5% say they are Muslims.  More than 176,000 said they were Jedi Knights.

Less than half of Londoners describe themselves as 'white British'.

In 4% of households no one speaks English as their main language.

I am not saying (at the moment) that there is anything wrong with this. But I do think we are nervous about discussing it and it clearly needs to be discussed.

Let's start with the BBC.

The fourth man

Where was he? Had he been slipped a tablet and left in bed, like the embarrassing uncle at a wedding? Was it more permanent: had a pillow been put over his head while he slept, like a pope whose frailties were too obvious? Or had his invitation been....er....lost in the post?

At the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony held in Norway they were all there: Merkel and Hollande, of course, beaming puffily. And the presidents: Barroso, president of the European Commission; van Rompuy, President of the European Council and Schultz, President of the European Parliament but wait! Where was Christofias, communist president of plucky little bankrupt Southern Cyprus, who is President of the Council of the European Union (as opposed to the European Council, do try to keep up)?

Searching the websites of the various bodies it seems he has been written out of history until someone more suitable comes along. Unfortunately the next ones are Ireland, Lithuania and Greece, so it's a body we shan't be hearing much from.

10 December, 2012


A House of Commons Committee has spent a year looking at our drugs policy and recommended a Royal Commission to look at whether drugs, or some drugs, should be decriminalised. A Government minister has replied quickly, but to the effect that nothing is going to be done about it. They are nervous of the newspapers shouting 'drugs free-for-all', 'narcotics nightmare' and so on.

I made my views clear here: I am fed up with the State telling me what to do for my own good. It is many years since I had a proscribed drug but when I did it was my own decision; my body belongs to me, not the State. I see no reason why I should be allowed alcohol and cigarettes but not marijuana.

I am pleased to see the MPs are going to Portugal to see how things are going there. I favour the system of treatment rather than punishment, despite having some doubts about forcing people into treatment.

I hope this debate is kept alive.

The next episode

The soap opera which is the run-up to the Italian election continues with another action packed episode.

Silvio Berlusconi claims to have been besieged with people begging him to save Italy and, like the patriot he is, he will answer the call. He will stand at the election which, as his supposed successor Angelino Alfano says, rather renders the proposed primary for party leader irrelevant.

Interestingly, Silvio has announced his return to the political scene by ordering his members in the senate not to support Monti's government in the most recent vote of no confidence. Monti has survived but says he will resign after the budget is voted through.

Berlusconi has been making noises against the austerity measures, saying that a nation cannot live by the confidence of the markets alone.

Where Berlusconi's actions are interesting is as regards what happens to the budget. You might expect anti-austerity Berlusconi to try to vote it down, but the law on elections is that there must be one within, if I remember correctly, 70 days of the government resigning. If Silvio disposes of Monti quickly it would mean he could be voted in before the 'Ruby' trial where he is accused of sleeping with an underage prostitute.

What will the outcome be? The centre is pressing Monti to stand at the elections but, as discussed before in these pages, the well nurtured European Man doesn't really like kow-towing to the peasantry. And the signs at the moment are that he wouldn't win (something he would treat with incredulity). The Left's Bersani, fresh from his triumph in the primary, seems likely to get 30%. Berlusconi on present figures, even with the help of the Northern League, would not reach this figure. Monti would be third, able to form a coalition with either major party, but it isn't really his style.

My guess is that Monti won't stand and the centre will try to find a new leader (I have previously suggested Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, Chairman of Ferrari, but he has ruled out standing as well).

What would Bersani be like? We don't know. There seem to be two Bersanis: the man of the Left, former communist, and the Bersani we saw in Prodi's government, who brought in liberalising measures to the workplace (although you still can't get a haircut on a Monday).

But there is plenty of running to go.

06 December, 2012

Bed blocking

A new royal heir: jumping the gun a bit, I know, but it hasn't stopped the Daily Mail slyly suggesting that Prince Charles might like to step aside. The Daily Mail doesn't like Prince Charles, but the chaps who drew up the Act of Settlement were careful to exclude any newspaper from deciding who the next monarch should be, so Charles it is.

There is a problem, though. Her Majesty is 86, and if, deo volente, she should live to 95, Charles would ascend the throne in 2021 at the age of  73, when his son, William, would be 39. Were Charles to live to 95, William would come to the throne in 2043 aged 61, at which time his heir, born next year, would be 30. Should William live to 95, his heir would come to the throne aged 64.

The Queen would have reigned for 69 years, Charles for 22, William for 34 and the heir 31. This is what is known is bed blocking, and with the greatest respect I think the Queen should have hung up her orb after 50 years. She certainly should when the child is born, and we should have a general cut-off limit of 85, so the monarch isn't several generations out of touch. 75 would be better.

Dave Brubeck RIP

The one that isn't Take 5

05 December, 2012

The Fall of the West

George Osborne, Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, will today give his autumn statement. He will tinker, there will be a slight change from current expenditure (welfare) to capital expenditure (roads and railways) but that will be all. His message will be the same as from pretty well all finance ministers in the West: growth will be less than forecast; we just can't seem to get the economy moving.

What some people are beginning to say is that we are looking at it in the wrong way.

This is, roughly, how the economy goes: we have our ups (booms) and our downs (busts) and we can all of us over a certain age remember several of them. A bust always, with varying speed, becomes a boom, and vice versa. The important points to pay attention to are where we are on the cycle - is it about to turn up or down? - and how steep or flat the cycle is - are the booms and busts short-lived.

Now, I am simplifying here, but there have been two theories of economic management since the 1920s. The earlier, Classical or Monetarist idea was that when we got to the top of the cycle there would be lots of money around chasing less decent investment opportunities, sometimes bad ones, known as malinvestment, the effectiveness of the economy would decline and we would head down the road to bust. (We can see this, with hindsight, from 2007/8 until the present). As we got to the bottom, labour would become cheaper, assets would become cheaper, and the investment opportunities better with less money chasing them so we would claw our way back to the top. This is, roughly, what I believe, but it has its imperfections, mainly that we are dealing with humans here.

John Maynard Keynes was one of the first to understand that there were imperfections, such as trade unions refusing to reduce real wages during the bust but he and his followers believed that this could be corrected by the guiding hand of government. Action to press down on the economy at the peak, action to boost government expenditure at the bottom.

So at the moment I am saying that being at the bottom of the cycle we should keep the minimum wage low so that people can work for less if they want to, and that we should remove regulations which stop business expanding (especially Europe); whereas a Keynesian is saying the government must spend more to keep things moving. I repeat, this is a simplification.

What some people are saying is we are now not just at a particular point in the cycle, but that we are on a different graph, that we have formed such a peculiar economic model in the West that things are working differently and that in particular we can never generate enough growth to drag us up the ski-slope to another boom. They are saying that Western-driven investment into emerging economies has formed high growth models before those countries have got into the heavy welfare habits we have adopted.

When George Osborne first promulgated his plan for economic recovery I was critical, saying that government should not just trim but get out of whole areas of economic activity. The new economics, if that is what it is, is this in spades. We should be looking at an economy where government expenditure is not 40-50% of GDP (France's is 56%) but 20-30%. It is why I have always been fairly bullish of America, despite the disastrous economic management there. At least, perhaps until Obama, they hadn't got on to this debilitating treadmill of welfare.

I know, it is a part of what we call civilisation. But it may have to change.

03 December, 2012

Told you!

You read it here

The oldies are back

Primaries are a new thing for Italy, where political leaders, as in last century's British Conservative party, have tended to emerge rather than go through some electoral process. Now in Italy they are all the rage, and kicking off the proceedings for next spring's general election is the Left. I say the Left rather than the Partito Democratico because it is traditional in this land of small parties and proportional representation that anyone who feels himself important enough sets up his own political grouping or party, which might well ally itself with the mainstream. You haven't a clue as to the name of their party until election day.

The race got down to a run-off between veteran Pier Luigi Bersani, 61 and the newcomer Mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi, 37. Bersani won easily, 61% - 39%. Personally I think the last thing Italy needs is these members of the old guard: the population is crying out for something new, hence the popularity of comedian Beppe Grillo.

And the worst thing is that, according to the Corriere della Sera, Bersani's win will encourage Silvio Berlusconi, 76, to stand again. His party, the PdL, has not yet had its primary because he has been dithering on whether to put his name forward. Otherwise, its leader would be Angelino Alfano, 42. The upshot is that there will be more pressure on Monti, no spring chicken himself who will be 70 at the time of the next election, to stand.

Really, the Italian voter deserves better than this, to drop the contest between a 37 year old and a 42 year old in favour of a couple of ancients, a 63 year old comedian holding the balance of power and people yearning for a septuagenarian who doesn't much like the democratic process.