28 February, 2013

We dun great

Today there is a by-election in Eastleigh, near Southampton. The result is due tomorrow.

All we can be certain of is that all the protagonists will say it was a good result for them.


The name means 'blessed' and I have sometimes wondered why he took it. Previous Benedicts weren't up to much, although the last one, who reigned during World War I, was a fairly good egg. I rather think that after the papal equivalent of a rockstar he wanted to be seen as a quiet, holy man. At his inaugural address he described himself as 'a humble worker in God's vineyard' which, for someone who had been known as 'the Pope's rottweiler' was image spin at its best.

In retrospect the Vatican needed a manager and it got a scholar. Some of the reins had got a little loose during John Paul II's international whirlwind, including the child molestation issue and, as we are now beginning to learn, homosexuality in the priesthood and higher. The Vatican has always contained more than its fair share of intriguers, and left unchecked this can reach fever pitch, as it may have done over the 'Vatileaks' scandal. The Holy See needed someone who could discipline, organise and be a little ruthless, and then portray his works to an increasingly sceptical congregation; instead it got a kindly old theologian.

I am sure Benedict was a thoroughly decent man and that history will remember him as such, but now St. Peter's needs a Chief Executive and a diplomat.

Benedict will be known as Pope Emeritus, which is decent enough, and, appropriately, an oft used academical appellation. He should keep out of sight, as he has promised to do, even though scandals emerge which are, perhaps unfairly, blamed on him. He may be the Aunt Sally Pope.


This blog's award for the newspaper article you least want to read has got off to a great start with an entry from the Telegraph:

Esther Rantzen: do I dare give love one more chance?

It won't be easy to beat that.

26 February, 2013

Italy votes (3)

So, the initial polls were miles out. It is said that people don't want to admit to a pollster that they voted Berlusconi or Grillo. Berlusconi fought a brilliant, tireless campaign, coming from certain loser to parity in a matter of weeks. Grillo even eclipsed him, and without the aid of the media, which largely pretended he didn't exist. Bersani was lacklustre and boring, Monti was nowhere. In fact he was in Davos for part of the campaign.

Bersani just scraped ahead of Berlusconi in the lower house and gets a bonus of seats, giving him a working majority. Berlusconi came off best in the upper house. Italy is officially ungovernable. To have new elections would require a new president to be elected by this fractious new legislature.

So how has it come to this? Could it occur in any other country that the traditional two or three party system is interrupted by a comedian, whose movement is suddenly as big as the others?

What the papers are saying is 'Italy rejects austerity' on the grounds that both Grillo and Berlusconi disapprove of Monti's plan. But this is a respectable position: many economic commentators think that tax rises in the middle of a recession just make it worse. Austerity is unpopular but it's something else.

There are a couple of aspects to this. The first is that part of the reason Monti did so badly is that he never explained what was going on. It seems arrogance; it seemed that both he and the austerity programme had been parachuted in from Berlin, and that turned Italians against the need for the suffering it caused. Coupled with this is a burgeoning anti-euro and even anti-Europe feeling, with resentment that decisions are made for Europe, not for Italy. This supported Berlusconi, particularly in the northern industrial heartlands where the myriad small firms resent paying for everyone else.

The second feeling in Italy is that the political caste needs replacing: 'Mandiamoli a casa' shrieked Grillo: 'Let's send them all home'. A prime example was during the hustings, where a bank, controlled by a political party, was forced to fire its chief executive who immediately became Chairman of the Association of Italian Bankers! He is now being investigated for corruption. He was a member of the ruling caste, which extends though politics to industry, the trade unions and the education establishment, so he was always going to be looked after. This sort of thing - and there are countless examples - sent million into the arms of Beppe Grillo.

There is going to be considerable short-term embarrassment: Italy is renewing some €8.75 billion of short-term debt this morning and the rates will rise. But in some ways I think this election was good. It was after the Mani Pulite scandal of the 1990s, which brought Berlusconi to power, that things were gong to change, But they didn't: after nearly twenty years, for much of which Berlusconi has been in power, things are the same as they were. Now, they might indeed change. Beppe Grillo is not Garibaldi but he may ultimately be the saviour of his nation. 'Honesty,' he said, 'will come back into fashion.'

Let's hope it does.

25 February, 2013

More Italy voting

A pornstar called Amandha Fox has offered a poster of her bottom to anyone who doesn't vote. She is, apparently, keen to be mayoress of Taranto.

I'm afraid I didn't qualify for the poster.

In other news, exit polls show Bersani to have a reasonably comfortable lead, ahead of Berlusconi and third Grillo.

Italy votes again

The second day of voting (incidentally I think this is a good idea). Yesterday the turnout, as expected, was low. Around 55% of those eligible to vote have done so, although turnout is higher in some regions.

Incredibly, in a protest against Silvio Berlusconi, three half naked women threw themselves at him. The old boy acted as if this were perfectly normal.

24 February, 2013

Italy votes

Italy goes to the polls today and tomorrow in the strangest election in its history. The protagonists are a veteran left winger who while a minister pushed through reforms the right didn't dare; a 75 year old billionaire; a university professor who will be 70 when the new government is sworn in and a comedian. Bersani, head of the Partito Democratico and former minister in the Prodi government, is the youngest at 61.

It is illegal to publish polls for the two weeks before the election, but not illegal to conduct a poll and have it leaked. In this way we hear rumours, and the most common one is that Beppe Grillo will come second to Bersani, with Berlusconi third and Monti way behind on around 12%. In some ways this is good for Italy: the markets would be pleased if Bersani had to do a deal and Mario Monti got his name on the notepaper.

On the other hand, only stable governments can enact reform and this doesn't look stable. If Berlusconi and Grillo have sufficient blocking votes they can cause no end of trouble. The most likely scenario is that Italy will be voting again before long.

It is snowing in many parts of the country and people don't seem enthusiastic.

We should know something on Tuesday morning.

23 February, 2013

Our own enemies

We can, I suppose, all feel relieved that Irfan Naseer, Irfan Khalid and Ashik Ali are in prison. They were planning a large number of terrorist atrocities and behind bars is where we want these people to be.

Some newspapers mentioned it, almost in passing, but there is a very sinister aspect to this case. It is that these people were - are - British, born in Britain. Irfan Naseer had a chemistry degree, which we financed, and Ashik Ali had a council flat. Many among their social and family circles must have known what was going on - they went off to Pakistan for training - but said nothing. They were a community - an overused word but here with a sinister meaning: they clung together putting their 'community' before the interests of their country and the safety of its citizens.

There could be countless other small cells of fanatics all over the country (but particularly in areas of high immigration from the sub-continent).

Our solution? To keep an army in Afghanistan and elsewhere. As we speak there are secretive British special forces creeping round the edge of the Sahara desert in François Hollande's bid for popularity among his own people. They, and the regular soldiers in Afghanistan, would make an excellent border force and infiltration unit to protect the British people which, I might remind everyone, is the primary duty of the Government.

We don't need escapades elsewhere: we have our own enemies on our own shores.

Recommended reading

I blog occasionally for The Commentator, an online magazine specialising in high quality journalism. The blog section is called The Tea Room (after the Spectator's Coffee House). My latest post here.

22 February, 2013


I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that the media are going big on the Pistorius story: a famous athlete kills a beautiful woman- it's got to be a good story hasn't it?

However I think it is worth reminding ourselves that this is just the bail hearing: it concentrates on whether he is likely to skip the country, and it is sometimes unwise for a lawyer to reveal his hand at this early stage.

But we seem to have gone miles over the top. The Sun has been vilified for printing pictures of the woman in a bikini - ironic really since she was still trying to break into the modelling business and now she is getting all the publicity in the world. Other papers had pictures of the bathroom where she was shot. I wonder what people make of this: to me it seemed that there being a news item about this couple all the information that can be gleaned about them is suddenly thrust in our faces.

It doesn't make for very good journalism.

What they're paid

Central bank governors' salaries in US$ equivalent

USA                199,700

UK                  465,869

ECB                493,694

Italy                   990,000 reduced voluntarily to 653,400

I yield to no one

The Corriere della Sera has published the opinions on the forthcoming elections of...Gianluigi Buffon, the Italy and Juventus goalkeeper. He supports Monti.

Wonderful footballer, of course but....

In the words of Jacques Chirac, he missed a valuable opportunity to remain silent.

21 February, 2013

Left or Right?

David Cameron is left-handed, as is Barack Obama.

Conspiracy theorists embrace all kinds of nonsense so a fear that we are being dominated by a sinister clique shouldn't surprise us. Perhaps we are.

But they should pause, because  pictures from his recent visit to India show him playing cricket right-handed.

Does he, as it were, bat both ways? Does this left and right confusion have something to tell us about his policy on welfare, immigration? On Europe?

I think we should be told.

17 February, 2013

The Red Cross

At a time of upheaval all over Europe, the battle of Solferino stands out. It was fought in northern Italy, near Lake Garda, between an alliance of Piedmont-Sardinia and France, and the Austrians. It was the last battle where all participating forces were commanded by their monarchs: Victor Emmanuel II and Napoleon III on the one side and Franz Joseph on the other. Two years later Italy declared its independence.

Out of some 300,000 troops taking part, more than 5,000 were killed and 23,000 wounded. Jean-Henri Dunant, a Swiss from Geneva,  witnessed the aftermath of the battle. What struck him was that there was no one to take care of the wounded: they were left to lie on the battlefield. He organised local people to treat them, paying for some of the medicines himself. Two years later his ideas led to the Geneva Convention and to the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose 150th anniversary is today.

Dunant died in 1910, penniless and schizophrenic but his creation lives on. It is said his last words were 'Where has humanity gone?' 

16 February, 2013


Election time in Italy is usually scandal time, and we are not spoiled on this occasion for stuff coming out of the woodwork. After the scandal at Monte dei Paschi di Siena, a bank controlled by the left, we have Finmeccanica. The CEO, Giuseppe Orsi, has been arrested on suspicion of paying bribes to land an Indian helicopter contract. Mr Orsi seems to have no particular political involvement but he smells vaguely of the centre-right.
A journalist asked Italy's President Giorgio Napoletano whether he thought Italy was returning to the Tangentopoli (bribesville) days of the '80s and 90s. 'All this worries me but I know nothing' said the wily old communist.

I think it likely that the journalist, il Presidente, and many other people in the press and the government may not have thought through about bribery.

To receive a bribe is one thing. It means that you have been given a position of trust and that you have breached that trust. Most cases refer to functionaries employed by governments who are able to agree business contracts. It is highly common: in a South-East Asian country I heard that only 65% of contract costs go to the contract itself. More than a third is paid out in bribes. In a South American country a procurement official would write the sum of money he wanted on the bottom of his shoe and then put his feet on the desk. Receiving a bribe means that you have stolen money from your compatriots: they have to pay more for their helicopters, roads or whatever in order to enrich you. It is, purely and simply, theft.

Paying bribes is another matter. The most that can be said is that you have charged a foreign country more than you might otherwise have done for your goods or services. That country has willingly paid it. As regards your own compatriots you have helped them: there will be domestic orders and jobs as a result of getting the contract. As Berlusconi said, 'they should not be so moralistic.....companies budget for bribes because that is how business is done in third world countries'.

In my view, inside Italy, Tangentopoli has not gone away: the political caste conspires to enrich itself in ever more imaginative ways. Look at how the sacked head of Monte dei Paschi became head of the Bankers Association.

But Mr Orsi was just doing his job. If the Indian government suddenly has a problem about bribery - and it would be utterly hypocritical if it did - it should look to itself. 

And Italy has far more important things to worry about than this.

13 February, 2013

The FT

The Financial Times is 125 years old today, coming into being just after Victoria's Golden Jubilee and around the time of electric street lighting in London. The British economy was the largest in the world, although about to be overtaken by the USA, and Britain was the most industrialised economy in the world. Happy days.

The FT was printed on pink paper from 1893, in order to distinguish itself from its competitor Financial News, with which it later merged.

The FT is now and always has been a first class newspaper. I wish it well for the next 125 years.

11 February, 2013

The LoUC

It's a delicious example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Romania, trying to seem modern, has banned horses and donkeys from the country's roads. The animals, unusable for transport, are worthless except for their meat value.

A dealer in Greek Cyprus, acting for a Dutch Company, bought the meat from Romanian abattoirs, selling it to a French company. Through a distributor in Luxembourg it ended up in British hamburgers.

Odd, but in fact this meat might be safer than horsemeat from Ireland, which is largely from abandoned racehorses stuffed with drugs. Romanian farmers didn't have access to the drugs so the meat might actually be a good thing. But consumers should have the right to know what they are eating.

Some fool on the BBC News Channel Comment programme suggested that the answer to this was more EU regulation. Of course quite the opposite is true. We accept the EU regulation and in return permit such places as Romania to sell us their meat. The system of regulation has broken down.

Britain, with high standards of animal care, should be allowed to refuse imports until various places cleaned up their act. As usual, the solution is less Europe, though the EU-apologists try to persuade you we need more bureaucracy.

Cometh the hour...

The surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI will fuel rumours that he has decided to devote the rest of his life to Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands who also mysteriously resigned recently.

As to his successor, the last two popes having been foreign it is surely time for another Italian one, and the cardinals need look no further than Silvio Berlusconi who according to evidence at his trial, is in youthful and vigorous health and looks good in white. His election to the throne of St. Peter would be supported by all other politicians in the country.

PS the latest odds show favourites Francis Arinze (Nigeria) and Peter Turkson (Ghana)

09 February, 2013

Everyone's a winner!

It is a strange truth of British elections that everyone who participated says something like 'this has been an excellent result for us'. I even made such a speech myself in 1992 having gleaned 42 votes out of around 100,000.

And it is of course true of the European Budget negotiations. The quotes are in:

France (Hollande): The best deal on offer, France has given in less than Britain, France will save €140m  year from financing rebates, aid to French farmers will remain the same as 2007-13.

Italy (Monti): particularly significant improvement in Italy's net position, an extra €3.5bn compared to the November proposals and Italy saves €600m a year from financing rebates.

Spain (Rajoy): Spain will remain a net recipient of funds, and will get almost 30% of the fund for youth unemployment.

Sweden (Reinfeldt): Sweden's contribution to the EU budget will drop slightly

Poland (Tusk): a huge success, Poland's receipts will increase by €4bn.

Denmark (Thorning-Schmidt): Denmark went in with 3 priorities and has satisfied all of them.

I don't know who lost: probably Malta and Bulgaria. Tough luck, chaps. Everyone else is a winner.


08 February, 2013

A success?

There are stories this morning that there will be a reduction in the European medium term budget (2014-2020). No details as yet and it could of course be vetoed by the European Parliament, but if this true it is a breakthrough.

The very idea that the European budget might go down as well as up was inconceivable until recently. It is a tribute to David Cameron if he, starting out as the only European  Leader demanding a budget cut, has succeeded.

I don't like or support Cameron but praise where praise is due. His fractious MPs should recognise this for what it is: a fundamental change in attitudes.

07 February, 2013


At the end of last year I commented on the Health Service in Britain. There have been developments and they are not good, although should come as no surprise to anyone who thinks critically.

According to a public inquiry some 1,200 people have died unnecessarily at Mid Staffordshire Hospital. Patients were left in soiled beds for days, and some were so dehydrated because the nurses would not bring water that they drank from flower vases.

Anyone in the NHS or the Department of Health who thinks this is an isolated incident is certain to be disabused. Five other hospitals are under investigation, and a further fifteen have unusually high death rates.

This is a disaster, nothing less.

Who is to blame? Not the director of nursing at the time, one Dr. Helen Moss, who has been cleared by her professional body of misconduct. Not the Chief Executive, Martin Yeates, who despite a recommendation that his conduct be investigated, was not questioned and left his job with a £400,000 payoff. And not the head of the West Midlands Health Authority, Sir David  Nicholson who got promoted to Chief Executive of the NHS and has confirmed he has nothing to apologise for.

So there you have it.

Actually there are other guilty parties: us. For years we have extolled the wonders of our Health Service (and to be fair, in the late '40s / early 50's it was internationally renowned) and then took our eyes off the ball while other nations created better, more manageable systems. For years the NHS was the largest employer in the world after the Red Army, and has only recently been overtaken by the Indian State Railways. David Cameron began his apology yesterday with 'I love the NHS'; the Olympics opening ceremony treated it as if it were a wonder; until now the British have been fulsome in their praise.

Until now.

One of the unnecessarily bereaved has started a campaign called 'Cure the NHS'. It has its work cut out. There is a culture of laziness, of bitterness among the staff. The hospitals are dirty and disease is rampant. Consultants are overpaid and idle.

The NHS needs root and branch reform, from its funding to its management. I am betting they will just tinker.

05 February, 2013

Reg Presley

RIP Reg Presley, singer for '60s band The Troggs, songwriter, actor and all round good egg.

Music from a gentler age, delivered in a wonderful Hampshire accent. When he made a fortune from another band recording his song Love is all around he said he'd spend the money analysing crop circles.

03 February, 2013

Coming this month

The euro seems safe for the moment, and, although a critic, I am not going to say otherwise. Mario Draghi's 'whatever it takes' statement, coupled with the long-term refinancing programme, seems to have taken away the immediate financial downside. The euro is riding high on the FX markets and sovereign borrowing costs are dramatically lower.

I just want to point to a couple of risks. In Spain Mario Rajoy's government is facing a grave corruption scandal. It has been suggested by the respectable El Pais newspaper that several senior members of the government have been receiving illegal payments - sobresueldos - from the Partido Popular, and that these include Rajoy. Spain is going through a particularly bad patch, with unemployment over 25% and youth unemployment over 50% and people are disgusted that the ruling class is in receipt of bungs. Campaigners outside parliament have been waving envelopes. The payments appear to have been made by construction magnates and people know it is the construction boom which has caused much of Spain's hardship. It is Rajoy's government which has towed the German line and introduced the unpopular austerity measures.

The second worry is Italy. Within a week or so opinion polls will become illegal over the election period. The country goes into this phase with Berlusconi doing well, within 5% of Bersani. Berlusconi unveiled today a raft of proposed tax cuts, including reductions in the unpopular IMU property tax introduced by Monti, the bulk of which has gone to bail out a bank run by the socialists.

If Europe wakes up at the end of February to the news that Rajoy has had to resign or that Berlusconi is in power in Italy - or both - things could look rather different.  

02 February, 2013


An interesting Italian opnion poll from Swg shows that following the MPS scandal the left, which owns and runs the bank, is suffering in the polls. Berlusconi is now within 5% of Bersani (27.8% to 32.8%) whilst comedian Beppe Grillo's 5-star movement is beating Mario Monti for third place (18% to 14%).

Interestingly the poll analyses non-voting intentions: some 30% of Italians have announced they probably won't vote and of these the proportion is slightly higher among practising catholics than non-practising, but on average catholics are far more likely not to vote (33%) than non-catholics (18%).

Interestingly older people (45-54) are less likely to vote (39%) than the 18-24 group (21%). People in low income groups are less likely to vote.

One interesting point the poll doesn't mention is the weather: this is the first time in living memory that the Italians have been asked to vote in winter. If it is a bad day, perhaps those wondering whether to vote or not won't bother, whereas those with a point to make (those favouring Grillo?) will force themselves out.