31 March, 2013

To the Faithful

Easter Sunday, and Pope Francis will hold his first Easter Mass, followed by the traditional Urbi et Orbi message to the faithful.

This blog's Urbi et Orbi message to  the less faithful, including politicians, wastrels and drunks takes place on the Feast of All Fools, tomorrow.

30 March, 2013

The solution

For much of the time, current affairs watchers like myself sort through the political tealeaves trying to spot some connection between events, some pattern. Then comes a moment when everything seems clear, albeit for just a second. This epiphany happened for me this week and I am here to share it with you.

The only way to understand British politics at the moment is to assume that David Cameron is determined to lose the next election.

He analyses the Conservative voter and finds that he is middle class and middle aged. He is a saver, so in order not to appear too popular Cameron organises economic policy such that interest rates on his supporters' savings are artificially low and the principal amount is being eroded by the consequent

The Church of England used to be known as the Tory party at prayer, so to ensure the odium of the Conservative voting congregations and their bishops he introduces Gay Marriage, something not promised in his manifesto and not particularly sought even by the gay lobby.

Europe is important so he promised a referendum, then went back on his word then said there might be a referendum but on his terms, just to make sure no one trusts a word he says.

He knows the Human Rights Act is unpopular with the electorate so he sticks to it like glue, ensuring that terrorists are allowed to stay in the country at the taxpayers' expense.

What do you make of it? Whilst it is possible that Cameron has a sizeable bet on the election I don't think that is the reason for his extraordinary behaviour. I think he wants to see a social democratic consensus in the country and hopes Mr Miliband, the next Prime Minister, will give him some modest reward for delivering it.

Nelson Mandela

Mr Mandela is in hospital with a recurring lung infection and is said to be frail, although responding to treatment. He is 94.

This blog wishes the old boy well, not least because it dreads the tsunami of sanctimonious hypocrisy which is going to strike us when he dies. You just need to look at a British politician to imagine the sententious cant he will come up with on that dread occasion. It makes you queasy.

My abiding memory is of a friend who bought a flat in a left-wing London borough. He was posted abroad and returned to find the road had been renamed Nelson Mandela Avenue and his property was worth £20,000 less.

This blog's advice is that if Mandela's condition deteriorates block your ears, black out the windows and on no account listen to or watch the BBC.

29 March, 2013


What I hope is a few final thoughts on Cyprus.

A bank is not 'open' if you can't go in and draw your money out.

A euro deposit in Cyprus, which can't be moved out, must be worth less than the equivalent euro deposit in Germany or Greece. Cyprus is therefore not in the single currency, it just has a managed and grossly overvalued exchange rate.

The deposits in Cypriot banks dropped dramatically in the weeks leading to the bailout. Who leaked it, to whom, and in return for what?

25 March, 2013

Cyprus: not the end

One area in which membership of the EU is extremely useful to a country like Cyprus is in obfuscating the norms of democracy. For the technocrats who got their own men into normally democratic Greece and Italy a little problem like the Cypriot parliament not liking the business of taking money from bank depositors was pretty straightforward. It was agreed that the parliament would pass in advance a series of easy boiler plate laws and leave the tricky haircut stuff until later. Then it turned out that one of the simple laws provided for the reconstruction of Laiki Bank and Bank of Cyprus, so they were put into liquidation without further reference to parliament but, unlike every other liquidation in the world, not all creditors within a creditor class were treated the same. Unsecured creditors under €100K were let off but those over €100K, identical in their rights, will have to take a serious bath. Depositors in other banks will be let off. Messy but, hey, the important thing is they didn't want this going through the democratic process.

The more you think about it, this democracy caper is all about ordinary people and who the hell cares about them in a modern elite-run society like Europe?

My big question is when the Greek Cypriot begging bowl makes a reappearance. There are other (bust) banks in Cyprus, there is the problem of what happens to the economy when the banking system isn't working and everyone wants to take their money out, and there is the problem of the Cyprus government debt which is going to rise but which they will have no income to repay. My guess is they are sorted until just after the German Elections this year.

23 March, 2013

and again....

A further thought: it is said that Greek Cyprus' talks with Russia have come to nothing.

The Russians must know that sooner or later they are going to lose their naval base at Tartus in Syria, about 150 miles east of Cyprus. If I were Russian, a naval base is what I would demand and if I were Greek that is what I would offer.

And this against a backdrop of the Americans pulling out of the Mediterranean because they expect Europe to conduct its own defences.

Cyprus again

As I write there is still no approval from the Cypriot Parliament for the terms of the EU bailout.

They should put it into perspective: in Britain the Government's monetary policy has caused inflation to exceed the approved level of 2% for several years,. As this ate away at our savings we were given the double hit of artificially low interest rates. Savers in Britain have been losing out at least 2% a year, sometimes 3%, which over the three year life of this government amounts to what the Greek Cypriot depositors are being asked for in a one-off. The difference is that we can look forward to the same thing happening for another three years.

They should pay up and be grateful they aren't in Britain.

22 March, 2013


All politicians have an image, of course, sometimes one well cultivated by the spin doctors, whereas sometimes the spin is tempered by popular perception. For me, when I think of Gideon 'George' Osborne I think political strategist, I think senior member of Team Cameron, but I don't think Chancellor of the Exchequer. I have suggested before that we abolish this term and call it the rather blander sounding 'Finance Minister' and I think this would rather suit Osborne.

He became finance minister nearly three years ago aged 38 and not having studied economics or indeed politics). Of course the economy was then in tatters, and still is. In a sense he has been unlucky with the forecasters, who kept giving him estimates that a return to growth was on its way, only for hopes to be dashed each time. It might have been better if they had announced a disaster - Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here - on Day 1.

Le me say now I think history will be kinder to Osborne than seems likely at present. He has made mistakes but I believe some of them are mistakes that most of us would have made.

The first mistake was to underestimate the depth of the recession, one made by almost everyone, self included. It was clear by the time the coalition came to power that the last Blair government had overspent massively - even their socialist successors knew that, but no one thought that returning to growth would be such an elusive goal. Assuming that growth would return Osborne the political strategist decided to make things as easy as possible: he announced spending restraint but put the difficult cuts - those to current expenditure - back to 2014-15 when, he felt, things were bound to be better and he might even be able to cancel them. At the start the cuts would be to capital projects. In the meantime he would have gained a reputation with the markets as a fiscal conservative and Britain would keep its Triple-A rating and money would be cheap.

The backdating of current expenditure cuts was a culpable error. The time that it is easiest for a government to take unpopular decisions - and Osborne is supposed to be some wizzo political strategist - is on Day 1. Yes, the new administration can say, this is tough, people are going to suffer, but it was the fault of the last lot. Now this is perceived as being a long recession, people are calling for capital projects to be reinstated, airports, railway lines, defence expenditure and so on, which means further cuts to current expenditure. As things stand, Osborne has raised current expenditure by £600 billion in three years, but somehow got himself a reputation as a savage cutter. Not really a piece of political genius.

Again, like many commentators, self included, Osborne underestimated the heroic stupidity of Angela Merkel and the European Union. Instead of booting Greece and Portugal out of the euro they resolved for political reasons to keep them in at whatever the cost. That cost has been a lengthy recession in Europe, to which we are tied so closely. Half our exports are supposed to be to countries which can no longer afford them. So while the exporters desperately try to rebalance their sales - David Cameron has been on more export marketing junkets than any Prime Minister in history - the economy grinds along the bottom.

Osborne's solution is to flood it with money, the Bank of England shovelling out cash by buying its own debt with money it has printed. This means that savers are doubly hit: there is inflation whittling away their savings and artificially low interest rates meaning they don't earn anything on them. And who is most likely to vote Conservative? Yes, people with a bit of money.

On balance Osborne seems to be a not too bad, if unlucky, Chancellor and the most appalling political strategist.

The future? Every recession, if not adulterated by governments, holds the seeds of the next boom: asset prices fall, bad companies go out of business, wage rates fall and the economy turns upwards. This may happen before the next election in 2015. History will judge how Osborne has affected it.

18 March, 2013

The Press

The House of Commons meets tonight to debate regulation of the Press. At least, when I say 'debate', they will talk about the deal which has already been stitched up by the three main parties.

I am against the Press being regulated by the Government either directly or indirectly, such as by a Royal Commission set up by the Government. The reason I am against it is simple: I don't trust them. Sooner or later some hack, newspaper or blog will be warned off writing about the Government. It is thought that many of the great pieces of investigative journalism - the cash for questions articles, the entertaining series in the Telegraph about MPs' expenses, the Thalidomide scandal of the 1960s, would not be possible under the proposed system.

Much has been said by the politicians to the effect that they are supporting the victims of journalist malfeasance. Apart from the fact that I don't believe in altering the law to please 'victims', who may be emotional or unobjective, the attacks on the Dowlers and the McCanns (whose child disappeared) were already illegal. All we need is to tighten up the system of their access to the law.

If this goes ahead it will be a bad day, not just for the British Press, but for British freedom.

Cyprus going south

I find it hard to have sympathy for the citizens of Greek, or Southern Cyprus, but things are not looking good for them. In financial difficulty, they asked the European Union for a bailout. The amount required, after scrutiny of the books, was €17 billion, 70% of its GDP.

It is hard to see how any country could get into this state, but then Greek Cyprus isn't an ordinary country; it is a satellite of Greece which, as we know, is also insolvent. And it is hard not to have some sympathy with the Germans, who are on the hook for all this nonsense, not wanting to pay for it. In the end the EU said it could cough up €10 billion, and the Cypriots would have to find €7 billion.

What they did was to impose a one-off tax on bank deposits, 10% for amounts over €100,000 and 6.75% for smaller amounts. So if a poor man has his life savings of €10,000 in Laika Bank he has to fork out €675 because the government he may not have voted for was corrupt and encouraged Russian money laundering. Bondholders, that is to say professionals who have invested in the bank, lose nothing.

But there are other issues aside from the moral inequity. After the crisis the EU made all countries have a deposit protection scheme, covering up to €100,000 deposits. The Greek Cypriot crooks have got around this by saying the banks aren't bust, so the deposit protection scheme isn't triggered, it's just a tax.

Second, it is clear that it is intended that this be the the precedent for future bailouts. So if you have your cash in a Spanish bank and it looks as if there's going to be a run on Spain, what would you do? Draw it out, of course. So now just the hint of a problem is going to cause a bank run.

Today is a bank holiday in the country, Clean Monday, when, laughably, the Greeks traditionally practise flying kites. The parliament in Nicosia is meeting in urgent session, and is new president Anastasiades has been on the 'phone to everyone who matters (Angela Merkel) but the damage is done. Italian and Spanish bonds were trading higher this morning, stock markets have fallen.

Either the Eurozone supports its members or it doesn't. Which is it?

14 March, 2013

Habemus Papam!

Herewith my blog post for The Commentator

The white smoke came at around 7pm Italian Time and we waited....and waited. It must have been almost an hour but the crowds, filling St Peter’s Square, down the via della Conciliazione to the Piazza Pia and Castel Sant’Angelo, seemed happy enough despite the intermittent rain.

And then something seemed to stir, lights came on and the proto-deacon emerged to tell us of the new pope. And it was....not the bloke we all thought.

Vatican watchers trying to get the news a few seconds early try to decipher the name from the Latin and when he said Giorgium we wondered if the slightly doddery Cardinal Touran of Bordeaux had got it wrong. Our ears were tuned for Angelum – for Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan.

But, as I have quoted before, the old saying is that he who goes into the Conclave as pope comes out a cardinal. It was said that Angel Scola went into the Conclave with 50 votes – you need 77 for election – and that if it were a short conclave it would be the favourite who won: who else could garner so many votes in so short a time?. It was further said that Scola could only be beaten by Marc Ouillet (Marcum), Odilo Scherer (Odilum?), or Sean O’Malley (Seanum, I suppose). We racked our brains for someone called George.

It was Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires and he will take the name Francis. Initial reactions were that the Cardinals had played a blinder. They had looked to where the mass of worshippers was – South America. They knew that the main task of the papacy would be to sort out the Vatican, and they chose someone who knew the Curia without being a Curial insider. They had chosen someone who lives in a flat, not a palace, cooks his own food and goes to work by bus (although all that will have to stop now; the boneshaker Roman buses are enough to kill the old boy off).

The enthroning of Francis is so fraught with symbolism that people will still be reading the tealeaves years hence. He is the first Jesuit to become Pope since the Society’s founding in the mid-16th century. He is the first pope in 1,000 years to take a new name (John Paul doesn’t count since it was merely the names of his two predecessors): a new broom? Does Francis refer to the popular St Francis of Assisi, patron saint of Italy, by the way, or to St Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuits? Francis is the first South American pope and the first in a millennium not to be European.

A new pope starts with a huge well of optimism and confidence which will last a while but not for ever. Francis needs to reassure the faithful that the scandals of the past are over. His flock will want to see a few comfortable insiders transferred to difficult locations around the world and guilty senior men resigning, as Benedict told Keith O’Brien to do. His supporters will search for doctrinal purity and humble demeanour and should be satisfied. Beginning his speech with ‘Buona Sera’ – good evening, showed an informality which the crowd loved. The progressive Europeans are unlikely to be satisfied, and to those British who want to know if he is sound on the Falklands, the answer is he’s not.

To anyone who followed my own choice of Cardinal Sandri, I apologise. I did advise you not to bet. I got the country right, but that isn’t even an each-way result.

I believe Pope Francis represents a new beginning for the Vatican, and that he is just what the Church needs. I am not expecting a long papacy – he is 76 – but an exciting one. Despite the rain, it was a good night.

12 March, 2013

The Conclave

The Conclave to elect the new pope begins today. The first smoke from the Sistine Chapel will be at 7pm Italian time and it is likely to be black: no decision yet. It is expected that the Conclave will go on for a couple of days.

The rumours are that Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan, has already got 50 of the 77 votes required. It is likely that the reason for this is that the Italians and other Europeans have put him forward as their champion, whereas the other main group, American-led and wanting a pope from anywhere except Europe, have yet to choose their champion.

The longer it goes on the more likely there is to be a compromise candidate, for which I favour Leonardo Sandri of Buenos Aires, who had Italian parents and knows the Vatican well.

But there are around a dozen papabili. They just need to get someone in place for Easter. Plenty of time.

The guilty and not so guilty

In the sometimes confused case of former Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne and his former wife Vicky Pryce the sentence has finally been handed down (by the way, BBC News Channel, a sentence is handed 'down', not 'out'): they each receive a prison sentence of eight months.

I suppose the crime of perverting the course of justice must be taken seriously. I also do not believe the argument that if someone is rich and in the public eye they can be said to have suffered enough merely in the press coverage. They must be punished the same as everyone else.

However, this really doesn't look right to me. She agreed to take his speeding points. Finish. A survey by Churchill Insurance reveals that nearly half a million people have done just this, to avoid one of them getting a ban. Strangely, the State sends you a note asking who was driving the car; that is to say you are asked to incriminate yourself, which is against natural justice. They can hardly be surprised when so many people decline to incriminate themselves in this way.

Normally in a court for someone to be found guilty there has to be some evidence against them, and I can't help feeling that it should be the same with speeding as with any other crime. But the state failed even to try to collect any evidence as to who was driving. It looks as if the whole system has been fiddled, just to cover up inadequacies in the prosecution.

Then we come to the crime of Huhne and Pryce. 'Perverting the course of justice' seems like a frightfully pompous way of describing her taking his speeding points. It is the term used for bribing a judge or nobbling a jury.

Really, the only people well served by all this are newspaper proprietors. The political editor of the Sunday Times, Isabel Oakshott, even shopped her source for the story, Ms Pryce, to the police, so as to get maximum coverage.

The couple should have been given a hefty fine and banned from driving for a year or two.

11 March, 2013

The Falklands

The Falklanders vote today on whether to remain British. Here is an interesting little side-issue

08 March, 2013


International Women's Day (IWD). I am against these 'days', often sponsored by the UN, because they seem to trivialise the often important message that goes with them.

IWD is one of the oldest, said to have been started in 1917 by Russian women demonstrating against the price and non-availability of bread. It is a case in point: they were still complaining about the same thing 75 years later.

This year the sub-theme of International Women's Day is violence against women. You won't get many politicians arguing in favour of it, yet it still goes on, and not just in third world societies. A woman who worked for the Samaritans revealed to me (they're not supposed to say anything about their work) that typically the man responsible for violence in the home was middle class, often a former officer in the forces. I don't know, perhaps the other women don't complain, which is even worse.

I suppose today might make us think a little about it. But we're not really doing anything. And there's not really anything we can do.

Total Eclipse

I mentioned last year how, unable to afford to stage the Eurovision Song Contest if we were to win it, we opted for the safe choice of Engelbert Humperdinck, a septuagenarian, who did not let us down by coming 25th out of 26.

Our tip for the bottom this year is Welsh croaker Bonnie Tyler, whose last hits, Total Eclipse of the Heart and Holding out for a Hero, were 30 years ago.

My forecast is that she won't achieve the dramatic low of Humperdinck but will do fairly..er..badly.

I yield to no one...

Jeremy Irons, the actor, has described himself as a 'flag waver' for a ban on plastic carrier bags in supermarkets. Didn't know he had a chemistry degree, did you?

Please Jerry, stick to the Stanislavski method, we don't need ignorant scientific tosh from you, just acting.

Frozen Venison

You'd think that after the global warming d├ębacle we would cease to take our scientists seriously. But no, they are now claiming that there must be a deer cull because we have more deer than we had during the Ice Age.

Killing deer in order to have more of them. It sounds like one of the British Labour Party's economic policies.

I will venture to suggest that these 'scientists' in fact haven't got a clue how many deer we had during the Ice Age, 800 million years ago, and that it is in any case irrelevant. In fact if they understood anything about ancient temperature changes we wouldn't have had the global warming nonsense in the first place.

07 March, 2013


It is odd for us seeing the broken, sobbing emotion in Venezuela following the death of Hugo Chavez. For us, the death of a politician marks either sober reflection or joy; no one would care much if we lost Cameron or Milliband, just as the idea of Hollande or Sarkozy falling under a bus would leave France little more than pensive.

Chavez was not, as some commentators like to suggest, either a communist or a dictator. He was a Peronist, a populist with the knack of persuading the poor they are doing better. The oil price rose during his presidency from not much more than $1 to over $100 and the money was blown on this or that programme; much of it stuck to his friends' or his ministers' fingers. Venezuela is no more an organised, viable state than it was in 1999: it is just as corrupt, just as inefficient and even more dependent on oil. A falling of the oil price would mean poverty, even hunger, for the lower classes.

Chavez will be remembered in Venezuela as a saint, in America as a bogeyman and in the rest of the world as just another south American generalissimo.

Jail shock

The newspapers in Italy and all over Europe are covering the news that Silvio Berlusconi has been sentenced to one year in prison for publishing the contents of an illegal wiretap.

Under the British system this sounds serious, but in Italy it is one of three steps before the sentence becomes definitive, with a limit of seven years from the date of the offence to the final appeal. I am willing to bet good money that Berlusconi will never see the inside of a prison.

So, don't worry, or sorry to dash your hopes, according to your view on the man: Italians can't seem to make up their minds.

05 March, 2013

Not for us, thanks

An interesting statement from Michalis Sarris, finance minister of Cyprus (which this blog recognises as southern, or Greek Cyprus), talking about a bailout of his bankrupt failed state; 'There are indications that London would participate in a package..'

This 'country' is bust because it attracted Russian oligarchs with tax breaks and the banks were allowed to take in massive deposits of largely illegal cash. The banks then invested the money in Greek Government debt, propping up the failed regime in their parent country. These Greek bonds turned out to be not such a good investment - who knew? - and when the third rescue package for Greece insisted on some people taking a haircut on their money, these banks were told to offer up their holdings for the haircut, meaning they had even less of the rubbish investments with which to repay their depositors.

Matters are now urgent because the Russians are moving their money out by the shedload and the banks can't repay them.

This has all been a conspiracy by Greece to prop up its corrupt regime using money from gangsters and now it has been found out.

Note to Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague: NO THANKS.

We'd have done better to recognise Northern (Turkish) Cyprus - at least it's run by a country with a future.

The Bonus Cap

We shall be hearing quite a lot about the European Union's proposed bonus cap, in particular because the banks are going to resort to law, probably under the now unpopular Human Rights Act, or the Equalities Act (see below) if that extends to dealers but not Dalits. Two things to note: firstly, don't blame David Cameron. The Government's power to do anything about this was removed with Qualified Majority Voting. He may be ineffective, but in this case it's not his fault. The second thing is don't believe it when you are told that even the Swiss are adopting such legislation. Typically, the Swiss one is very sensible, giving shareholders the right to vote on executive pay, a step forward rather than back for democracy and, I suppose, 'rights'.

They won't be doing this in New York or Singapore.

When considering the matter of bankers' remuneration I often turn to another highly paid profession, football. It is as if the Football League had said that all clubs north of the Watford Gap will have to limit footballers' wages and no more than a £25 voucher from Boots for scoring a goal. Clubs in the South would not be affected.

So in the North, come the opening of the Transfer Window, Manchester United, Manchester City and Bangor Athletic would be limited as to what talent they can pay for: Cristiano Ronaldo doesn't score goals for £25 and may anyway be using a different brand of cosmetics. Note that this wouldn't trouble Bangor Athletic, the footballing equivalent of Malta or Belgium, who don't have the money or the name to bid for the best players and so supported the move, dragging the big Manchester Clubs down to their level.

But Tottenham and Chelsea, the equivalents of New York and Singapore, would be cock-a-hoop, their teams full of superstars.

Such is the effect of governments sticking their oar into places where they shouldn't.


Vijay and Amardeep Begraj worked in a law firm in Coventry, he as practice manager, she as a solicitor. They claimed unfair dismissal against their employer, Heer Manak, on grounds of caste discrimination, in that Amardeep was from the Jat caste whereas her husband Begraj was a Dalit, or untouchable as they used to be known. They had married across the caste boundaries.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case (the judge, who goes by the splendid name of Merry Cocks, stood down, apparently after a visit from the police) it is deeply regrettable, although not unimaginable, that caste differences should have made their way to Britain.

Now Lord Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, has tabled an amendment to a Bill going through the House of Lords, which would make it illegal to discriminate on grounds of caste, as it is illegal on grounds of gender, ethnic background, religion, sexuality and so on.

The statement from the spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (how could we make a saving here?) was rather interesting. He said 'We do not believe that introducing specific caste based legislation is the best way to tackle the incidents of caste-based prejudice and discrimination that have been identified'. Apparently the government will rely on education.

Now, as it happens, I did not believe, when the Racial Discrimination Act was passed in the 1970s, that legislation was the right way to go about this. I'm not sure about 'education' but I believe a culture of tolerance has grown up in the UK in spite of the legislation. I felt the same when it was extended to homosexuals, people with big noses and that tribe which worships the Duke of Edinburgh. Battering people with bien pensant legislation, forcing them to behave as the State would want is, to me, a retrograde step, not a progressive one.

Now it seems the Government agrees. Will we see an end to the reams of ineffective laws, to the thought police who want to regulate our every whim?

Don't hold your breath.

Good luck to Mr and Mrs Begraj, who are apparently too short of money to have a retrial.

01 March, 2013


The results of the by-election were

LibDems 32%

UKIP      28%

Cons       25%

Lab         10%

It is surprising how close the three top parties were - less than 3,000 votes between LibDem and Conservative. But most surprising was the rise of UKIP

Many tired old Tories (eg John Redwood, who writes an otherwise excellent blog) are saying that the Eurosceptic Right polled 53% but being divided lost the election to a euro-fanatic. The truth is that there is a party which wants to leave the European Union and a party which wants to stay in but whinge a bit.

The Tories know exactly how to eliminate the threat of UKIP. Cameron hasn't the balls to do it. After today they might just think of finding someone who does.

David's Day

St. David's Day. David was a 6th century monk, who spent his life fighting Pelagianism, which is the belief that there was no original sin, and that Adam's sin, whilst not setting a good example (I have a secret, risky thrill when eating an apple), has not cast us all into the void: we can decide what is right and wrong and act accordingly. Pelagianism is sometimes known as Limited Depravity, which at least makes it worth studying.

David was an ascetic, and his followers were supposed to eat nothing but bread and herbs, although perhaps he ate leeks.

Ha! art thou bedlam? dost thou thirst, base Trojan,
To have me fold up Parca’s fatal web?
Hence! I am qualmish at the smell of leek.
Henry V

There is no longer a need to wear a leek on St David's day, even though you may feel it is attractive to the opposite sex.