Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Boss

Overall I prefer this new blog to my old one on AOL. It is easier to post to, looks better, it saves my posts as I'm going along and so if I lose my internet connection or if my computer crashes all that I have typed is not lost.

The only trouble is that I have traditionally used my blog not only as an outlet for my many and various opinions on all manner of subjects but as a means of communicating with Leah, the love of my life, when she is not speaking to me. With my old blog I was able to tell when she had read it. With this one I have no such luxury. I just have to hope and pray that she is.

So Leah, if you are reading this, I am going to come there next week. This is definite. I am still having certain health problems but I shall just have to grin and bear it. I shall be there in time for your birthday but probably some time next weekend. It would be nice if you would respond in some way to this but I shan't hold my breath and will just book it anyway if I hear nothing from you. In other words I shall take your silence as acquiescence.

I'm coming there for a week or ten days. I shall see as much of you as I am allowed to do during this time. I'm then going to Menorca for Christmas. I would love for you to accompany me. I recognise however that this may present certain difficulties and may not be something you feel ready to acquiesce to at this stage. Indeed I recognise that you will not be ready to acquiesce to anything much at this stage. You are probably adopting a wait and see attitude. This is fair enough.

Believe me I would have been there weeks ago but really I was not well enough. But I've given up my physiotherapy now and am doing my own program of exercise and eating lots of fruit and vegetables to cure my stomach problems.

Anyway, as ever you are the boss. I don't mean by this that you are some kind of nasty, frowning and angry termagant. I mean that you are in the driving seat. The decision about what and if and the extent of what happens now is yours.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Life and Leah

I'm torn. What shall I do? A couple of weeks ago I wrote on this blog about my plans to apply for jobs so that I can have a little stability in my life. This was not entirely for my own sake, although a regular income would clearly be useful. It was mostly for Leah's sake. I want her to come here and be with me. And whilst it is fine for me to live on my nerves sometimes and wonder where money is going to come from, I wouldn't want to deprive her of anything or make her worry. Leah is a worrier. I may have a lot of grey hair but I'm not really a worrier. I rarely let things get me down despite the fact that life has been throwing an awful lot of shit my way just recently.

But the jobs I applied for I didn't even get interviews for. I could have done the jobs, infact I would have been bloody good at them, but convincing others of this is not always easy, especially on paper. On paper I do not have the best of CVs. I have all of the qualifications but the last ten years have been spent writing and doing a variety of jobs some good and others less good dependent upon the exigencies of my situation. Not many people can say they've studied law but then become a television announcer then worked freelance for years with occasional forays into bus driving to make ends meet. I expect the average recruiter sees my CV and raises an eyebrow.

Now to my mind my wide ranging experience and willingness to do different things makes me a more rounded person. It's all very well people going to good schools, good universities and then straight into a career but it does tend to make such people rather one dimensional. Politicians and lawyers are classic examples of this. Indeed the two often mix because the skills are equally applicable to both. But it is unarguable that lawyers and especially politicians would be better at their jobs and better able to represent their clients or constituents if they moved in less rarefied circles, if they had a better idea of the way people at the bottom of the ladder of life actually live. Gordon Brown is a classic example of the sort of person who, though academically gifted, has no real idea what goes on in the world outside his political bubble. He thinks he does, he thinks his ideas of 'social justice' are rooted in decency and morality. But his is a naive view of the world. It ought to be a condition that politicians in particular should get out and see a little more before they enter Parliament and presume to legislate.

Sadly this is not an argument one can put on a CV or application form. Thus it seems I shall just have to use my life experience to make me a better writer. I'm not giving up on the idea of applying for jobs. But I'm not sure how good my chances are.

It isn't as if Leah made this a condition of her being with me. It's all my idea. Fortunately things are going quite well at present. I'm making money. If my book sells well when it's published we may have nothing to worry about anyway.

Anyway, in the absence of any job offers I am off to New York later this week to persuade Leah to come and be with me anyway. I've also accepted Mom's invitation to go to Menorca for Christmas. I'd love to take Leah with me and introduce her as my fiance.

2008 has been a mixed year. I've accomplished things that have been long cherished ambitions. I've moved away from Birmingham at long last. I have also of course had major surgery and could easily have been quite badly disabled right now rather than suffering from a slight limp and other minor difficulties. But what will really round the year off for me is if Leah and I can finally resolve things and start planning a future together. I'll find out if that ambition is to be realised very soon.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Democracy?

For some time now I have been arguing that the present state of the British constitution is flawed, inadequate and fragile to a worrying degree. Proof of that came yesterday when the Metropolitan Police raided the offices and home of the Conservative shadow Home Office minister, Damian Green. They did so because they are investigating a complaint made by the Home Office about a number of leaks from that department to Mr Green which had ended up in the press. These leaks were of documents which, though embarrassing to the government, were not in any way prejudicial to national security. They were only being kept secret because they were sufficiently embarrassing for this spectacularly inept department to try to keep them that way. They revealed spectacular incompetence, the revelation of which, in a democracy, is demonstrably in the public interest.

The Met took several large teams of detectives and anti terrorist officers and raided offices in Parliament and Mr Green's constituency along with his home. They placed him under arrest and questioned him twice despite the fact that he is an elected MP and a member of the opposition front bench. They did all of this with the approval of the Speaker of the House of Commons who had the power, some would say the obligation, to tell them to go to hell. This is Parliament, the Palace of Westminster. It is supposed to be sovereign in our nation and yet it would seem that the police can go in there whilst investigating a conveniently obscure and trumped up common law offence and confiscate various files and IT equipment belonging to an elected representative of the people because a government department has been embarrassed.

This is the sort of thing that goes on in Zimbabwe. Government ministers have of course denied all prior knowledge of this operation.

But this is what is wrong with our system. We proclaim ourselves as proud standard bearers of democracy but how fragile it is. We live in a state which has no written constitution and so a party in possession of a majority can do as it pleases. Statutes and common law make up our constitution and the interpretation of it is a moveable feast. We are fortunate that we have a fiercely independent judiciary who throw out attempts to bully journalists and their whistle blowers. Only this week a judge threw out a case against a journalist who had received information from an informant which was of no great import but which the police took exception to. They threw huge resources at a case which never got to be heard in full court because they had broken the law in compiling it.

I love British history. I love the fact that we have gone from a feudal dictatorship established in 1066 and then very slowly and incrementally we have established the rule of law, various rights starting with Magna Carta, the primacy of Parliament after a civil war, a constitutional monarchy after a very British glorious revolution and a slow march to democracy won over subsequent centuries.

And this is the problem. We have evolved these various institutions and few of them are democratic. We have an unelected head of state. We have an unelected upper chamber of Parliament. We have various quangos spending vast amounts of money for which no minister is answerable. The police are literally a law unto themselves. No elected officials oversees them. They claim to be independent and impartial and yet what we have seen this week proves the opposite. And yet when Boris Johnson, the newly elected Mayor of London, decided to remove the Metropolitan Police Commissioner a few weeks ago there was uproar, as though this is something elected officials should not do. We have seen this week that this is precisely what they ought to do and they ought to do it more often.

British democracy, for all of our complacent boasts, is incomplete and deficient. There are no checks and balances in our system, just untrammelled power in the hands of the executive. What has happened to Damian Green this week was inexcusable and dangerous and those responsible should be dismissed. The Speaker, Michael Martin, should be made to resign. What Mr Green did was expose things which the government found embarrassing and politically inconvenient. That is what he is supposed to do. In a less secretive and enclosed system we would not have the need of officials leaking such information because we would be able to access it anyway. Until we have a better system designed for the 21st century democracy we claim to be we need the likes of this unnamed official and MPs to hold the government to account and embarrass them when they try to keep the truth from us. That is what is supposed to happen in a democracy. That is what keeps governments on their toes and keeps them honest. Transparency and openness are the only way to promote efficient government and they must not be suppressed.

It really is time to design a new and better system for a modern age. What we have now is a series of compromises and outdated precedents which leads to situations such as this. This coming week we will see the farce that is the state opening of Parliament in which the Queen will read a speech written by Gordon Brown talking about 'her government'. The trouble is that we have replaced a dictatorial monarch with a dictatorial government of whatever colour which happens to control the House of Commons. They can then ride roughshod over anything and everything, outlaw what they like and keep quiet anything that is inconvenient or embarrassing.

Back in our civil war people like the Levellers had all kinds of ideas about democracy and rights of man and checks and balances. Those ideas spread around the world to France and were taken to America where the founding fathers translated them into the American constitution. Yet here in Britain we still do not have such a document or a proper system of checks and balances. It really is time that we did.

Jihadist Cretins

Ever since 9/11 it has become fashionable for politicians and the media to talk and write and report Islamic terrorism as though it is some kind of vast and organised insurrectionist element in society which threatens to undermine our way of life and plunge the whole world into chaos. Indeed this is the stated aim of the likes of Osama bin Laden who despises our way of life for reasons peculiar to him and his kin.

Are we in danger of taking these jihadist cretins too seriously? I'm not for a moment saying that we shouldn't be outraged, disgusted and appalled by what happened in Mumbai yesterday and today as with other recent despicable crimes. But our other reaction, once the anger has dissipated, should be consternation. What on earth did they hope to achieve?

Some are saying that this shows a high level of organisation, preparation and training. Does it? Anarchy and mayhem are actually rather easy to achieve if you are determined and deranged enough and choose to inflict it upon people who are minding their own business and aren't expecting some gun toting moron to come along and fire at them for no reason.

Are these terrorists any different in any fundamental way from the succession of social misfits who have terrorised a succession of American schools, colleges and other communities in recent times? These were people who were hopeless inadequates with chips on their shoulders who decided to go on killing sprees. The difference in Mumbai is that a few of them got together, used 'Islamic grievances' as their excuse and inflicted terror on people they have decided deserve it.

These are not sophisticated people. They are almost always male, they are almost always young and impressionable and have almost always been brainwashed with crude propaganda into believing nonsense. The way they go about inflicting their mayhem is not sophisticated either. They frequently fail. If they 'succeed' they usually only do so by blowing themselves up too in the misguided belief that this is somehow noble.

We take these people far too seriously. The better response would be to point at them and laugh. They are absurd. Just read some of the transcripts of bugged conversations the idiots have when plotting their soon to be botched campaigns. It's all 'listen bro' this and 'we must avenge' that. They don't have a clue what they are avenging. They just get fed the lines and parrot them and then think that they are part of something which makes them cool and hard and dangerous. They are just teenage, listless wannabes with chips on their shoulders. They are no different to the kids who join gangs so they can gain some dubious 'respect'. They are the pathetic detritus of society, failures and misfits who try to heap the blame for their own circumstances on the rest of us and dress it up as a cause.

Look at Bin Laden himself. This so called leader, this freedom fighter, this lion of Islam has now spent seven years hiding in a cave whilst exhorting his credulous halfwit brethren to fight his war for him. Funny how the loudest of the zealots are always great at exhorting but never actually dirty their own hands let alone run the risk of actually dying for the cause. Isn't being a martyr supposed to be the highest calling? So why is Mr Bin Laden so reluctant?

By taking them seriously we just feed their delusion. Of course it suits the government to talk all of this up because it makes them look authoritative and steely. In the absence of a war to make them look statesmanlike they have invented one and talk it up constantly as justification for all kinds of measures that are expensive and unnecessary. Every time our government passes another piece of illiberal legislation (today anti terrorist police in this increasingly paranoid and authoritarian country have misused laws to arrest a Conservative MP because he leaked some immigration figures which he had a perfect right to do) they just feed the self image of these jihadist cretins who actually think they have a worthy cause.

By all means lets keep our guard up. I use the London Underground and I have no desire to see the events of July 2005 repeated. But let's keep this in perspective. This is not a new kind of war for the 21st century. It is just a new kind of criminality for the 21st century. This is not a sophisticated subterranean network. It is a bunch of pathetic, deluded social outcasts with a grudge. Stop taking them seriously. Laugh at them. Ridicule them. Chip away at that image they have of themselves as heroes. They'll hate that.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Best laid plans

I haven't even got interviews for those jobs which has pissed me off more than somewhat. Okay one of them had over 2500 applications but that doesn't stop me from being annoyed. I would have been bloody good at that job.

Still, to hell with them. I like being freelance. I like working hours that suit me. I like being my own boss. I would have quite enjoyed the rat race again and having to work regular hours but now I shall resign myself to doing things the hard way. The idea was to have some stability so as to provide Leah with stability but if they won't employ me or even interview me what can I do?

So I am off to New York next week. I could go this weekend. I might do, although that will be a bit of a rush. I need to do some shopping, get my hair cut and prepare for my destiny. I would just do all of my clothes shopping in New York but it isn't the cheap option now. Better to do it here and take it with me. I need some new clothes. I haven't been doing much lately owing to my back and now I need a new wardrobe.

I'm on my way finally, Leah. I am coming there to woo you. And it's appropriate I tell you today on the day you commemorate some other visitors from these shores. Happy thanksgiving.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Same old same old.

Two days on from the emergency budget and the consensus of opinion seems to be that it was a damp squib. It even seems to have failed politically which was largely what it was all about. Labour MPs are of course defending it but deep down they seem to know that this will fail. It is too small to make any real difference to the economy, the borrowing figures are disastrous and the public knows only too well that tax rises for all are on the way, a perception that will only have been reinforced by revelations that the government considered and at one stage signed off on plans to raise VAT even higher than where it was before the cut. This would of course have happened once an election was out of the way. The government has of course denied that it has any intention of raising VAT after an election but then they have form on such matters. The public may well feel that such a rise is very much on the cards.

Once more Gordon Brown has been caught out when he tries to wrongfoot the opposition with one of his tricks. It happened before with the 10p tax band or that ill judged trip to Afghanistan during the Conservative conference last year. This emergency budget may well be the moment his fightback came to a sticky end. His 45 % higher tax rate was another such attempt. It has failed to wrongfoot the Tories and is bringing back memories of Labour governments of the past. Most are assuming that this is just the thin end of the wedge.

I still contend that this was intended as a primer for an early election. If it was however it has failed even in this narrow regard. Once more Brown has been caught out treating the electorate like idiots. This so called clever man is nothing like as clever as he thinks he is.

There is justifiable public anger at the banks whose greed and recklessness got us into this mess. But at the same time anger will head the way of Gordon Brown who presided over it all. It was he who changed the regulatory structure, he who did nothing about 125% mortgages, he who kept borrowing himself during the boom years so that now, when we ought to be able to fall back on money put away, public borrowing is spiralling out of control.

The Labour response to all of this is to repeat the old mistakes which nearly bankrupted us in the seventies. Borrowing is going up, taxes are going up and they are threatening to meddle in all kinds of things government should have nothing to do with. Only a few weeks ago they rightly nationalised large parts of our major banks. At the time they claimed that they would not interfere in the day to day running of those banks. But its starting to happen just as we knew it would. Banks are being told to renew lending, they are being told today to come to the rescue of Woolworths, credit card companies are being told to lower their interest rates.

The banks are behaving the way they are because they are having to rebuild their capital bases, something they have been told to do. This process is not made any easier by the extortionate level of interest being charged on the preference shares bought by the government. Brown congratulates himself on coming up with this rescue package and the fact it is being copied around the world. This interest rate however is a central part of that package and ours is much higher than anyone elses. Then they wonder why the banks are reining in lending, not passing on interest rate cuts and not rushing to the aid of basket cases like Woolworths.

And this is going to make an already steep and disastrous recession even worse. The banks behaved irresponsibly and recklessly but then so did the government. The difference is that there is nothing to stop the government from continuing that binge and making matters worse. Responsibility is forcing the banks to be conservative in order to rebuild balance sheets. Only Parliament or ultimately the British people at an election can force that on this government and we may have to wait 18 months for the opportunity.

Which all begs the question where next? Given that this package will not work and that cutting VAT may actually help create deflationary conditions we are sure to be in a worse position in a few months time. Borrowing is going to be worse than predicted because it always is and because their predictions are laughably optimistic. We are at the beginning of the recession and already two giant retailers are going into administration. The motor industry is on short time or closing down for weeks on end. Unemployment is spiralling. What is the betting we will need another emergency budget in the spring? What is the betting that this too will be full of gesture politics, fictional figures and wishful thinking? What is the betting that nationalisation rears its ugly head again as more and more companies need intensive care? Already Mandelson today is making noises threatening the banks to come to the rescue of Woolworths because he knows how symbolic Woolies going down the tube will be. All bets are off. It's going to get bloody.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

The Politics of Envy

Much, inevitably, has been written about yesterday's budget. It is a watershed moment in British politics. Everything changed yesterday. The consensus evaporated. Labour shifted to the left and the Conservatives to the right. Both are gambling that they have caught the mood. Labour is betting the house that the electorate will swallow the package and accept the tax rises because they are aimed mostly at higher earners, although there are hints today that they will have to raise VAT even higher than it was before yesterday. The Conservatives are betting that people are sick of ever rising tax bills in return for public services which are still failing to deliver. After ten years of stealth taxes they believe the British people will see through the Labour spin. Tax rises will be for everyone once the next election is out of the way.

The Conservatives have refused to fall into the trap laid out for them and to which I alluded on Sunday, namely that Labour will put the top tier of tax up for high earners and then challenge the Tories to say whether they will abolish it. Clearly this cannot be the Conservative priority. Tax cuts, even when they become possible, will have to be slow and incremental and start at the bottom.

It is of course widely accepted that the better off should pay more in tax than those who earn less. That is perfectly fair and reasonable. What I have never understood and find genuinely bizarre is this notion, which is common throughout the developed world, that, not only should high earners pay more tax, but that they should pay their tax at a higher rate. Why?

Paying a percentage of our earnings is fair and reasonable and nice and easy to understand. A 20 % tax rate for instance is simple. If someone earns £20,000 per year, ignoring tax allowances and so on for the sake of simplicity, they will pay £4,000 in tax. Someone earning double that amount, £40,000 per year, pays double the tax. £80,000 double again and so on. So far so easy. So far so fair. People earning more pay the same rate but pay more. So why is it necessary for top earners to pay a higher rate? Why is that considered fairer? What sort of message does that send out?

Labour actually went further than this yesterday. Not only did they increase the top rate from 40 % to 45 % but they abolished the tax allowance, the method which enables people to earn a minimum amount per year before they start paying taxes. This means that people on the lower rate pay less than the lower rate but the people on the top rate pay the full and higher rate. To my mind this is spiteful and vindictive. It achieves little in terms of revenue but sends out a powerful message.

This is why so many commentators today are saying that this is the end of New Labour. This is a return to the days when Labour soaked the rich. This threatens a return to the days when this country had a massive brain drain, when our best and brightest and biggest potential earners left the country to escape punitive and self defeating taxes.

And ultimately these policies are self defeating. In the post industrial age, in an age when Labour says it wants half of all school leavers to go to university, why are they then sending out a message that high achievers will be punished? If someone works for years to become a highly skilled and highly remunerated doctor, lawyer, dentist, architect, engineer, or accountant for instance, all of whom can earn in excess of 150k, why would you then want to penalise them for their success? The City of London is one of this country's biggest success stories. With moves like this the government risks killing it and driving business abroad.

Many Labour MPs seem to have their heads stuck in a world when all wealthy people were evil, exploitative 19th century Dickensian figures forcing their employees to work endless hours in grimy and dangerous factories for a pittance whilst rolling in cash themselves. It's because of such employers that the Labour and trade union movement came about after all. But that's all history now. There really is nothing wrong with people wanting to work hard and earn good money in return. Such people should be encouraged through the tax system not branded as 'rich' and forced to pay punitive levels of tax thanks to the politics of envy.

When I came out of hospital I was driven home by a girl from the ambulance service. She was about 20 years old. We chatted on the way back and she told me that she had recently split up with her boyfriend and so was doing four different full time and part time jobs so as to keep up payments on her house, car and various other commitments. She is not rich. Yet she is exactly the sort of hard working taxpayer who is penalised by our ludicrous system.

What Labour did yesterday was regressive and counter productive. In order to have the sort of society all of the political parties claim to want we ought to be simplifying and flattening our tax system to give an incentive to people to work hard and better themselves. A flat tax system which took the very low paid out of the tax system altogether but got everyone else to pay the same rate would still mean that the better off would pay more but they would not see their tax rate double just because they happen to be highly skilled, well educated or hard working. It would also mean that people like Lewis Hamilton and Phillip Green felt less inclined to head off to Switzerland or Monaco to avoid such punitive taxation. In fact a flat tax system, because it is perceived as fairer and more reasonable and so not worth evading or avoiding, would actually raise more money for the exchequer.

It would seem that Labour has forgotten the lessons of the 1970s when punitively high taxes had the opposite effect to what was intended. Such taxes are resented and then routinely evaded. The biggest worry however is that the other parties, particularly the Conservatives, are still too afraid to be bold on taxation. It's a nice fiction for the parties to say 'don't worry, we'll raise this money by getting it from the rich'. Sadly there aren't enough rich people to make this a reality. Keep going down that route and there will be even fewer and that will impoverish us all.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Will it add up?

So, as expected, the Pre Budget Report (hereinafter known as the Budget because that is what it really was) had all kinds of emergency measures designed not so much to save the economy as to prime the country for an election. This had Brown's fingerprints all over it. It had the sort of sleight of hand we came to know so well in his budgets. The only difference was that it was read out in the Darling monotone and he is not so good at rushing through the passages that are politically embarrassing. When he got to the borrowing figures for instance Darling read them at the same pace. Brown would have gone through them as though they were radioactive.

This was a spectacularly cynical budget. The headline of the VAT giveaway I have already dealt with in previous posts. It would seem that the British public is not fooled either. Vox pops conducted by various news organisations show people are not fooled. Many pointing out that if you have no money to spend then 2.5 % off prices is meaningless, especially against the background of already falling prices.

The remarkable thing about this cut in VAT is that even here the government have attempted a bit of Brownite conjuring. With one hand they have given us a cut in prices but with the other they have increased duties on fuel and alcohol. So on the very sort of things people buy all of the time and, in the case of fuel have no choice about buying, there has been no cut in prices at all.

Taxes are going to go up. On top of the rise in the rate for the better off, in itself a broken promise and economic nonsense because it will raise very little and may do more damage, there will be a rise in National Insurance. This will be a massive rise and for those on just 20k plus. That means middle income earners, as expected, will end up paying.

But of course this is just the thin end of the wedge. This will not be the end of the tax rises. We know this because of yet more sleight of hand. The huge borrowing that the government has admitted to will in reality be much worse. Next year they are predicting borrowing of £118 billion. But that is predicated on the economy recovering this time next year. That just isn't going to happen. Nobody but the Treasury think we will recover that quickly and the Treasury's record on predictions is woeful as Darling tacitly admitted today with his revised forecasts. They have also included in their assumptions 'efficiency savings' of £5 billion a year. That won't happen either. It never does. That is just a figure plucked out of the air to make the borrowing look a little less terrifying.

Even if those forecasts are correct they are assuming that borrowing will not be under control again until 2015. That is if you accept their definition of under control. Darling explicitly said that by then he would be in a position to borrow 'only for investment'. Even if it were true that this government has been borrowing only for investment, the total debt by then will be at or above 60 %. That is a level of borrowing greater than in the 70s economic crisis and only equalled in the war years.

Furthermore they have as good as told us that public spending is going to fall. They have already planned for much lower annual growth in spending and that is without allowing for additional spending on unemployment benefits etc.

So what does all of this add up to? It adds up to much higher taxes, lower public spending and a deep and nasty recession. Even when we do recover the measures announced today will make that recovery slower because more money will be sucked out of the economy. The Chancellor admitted today that the City is a huge factor in the British economy. Yet he is putting up taxes which will affect the City and runs the risk of driving business abroad.

The City itself reacted with all of their usual calm detachment and the FTSE rose by 10 % which just goes to prove that stock markets are irrational. Presumably any action is regarded as good regardless of whether or not they think it will work. It's either that or they are all trying to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible before their tax rates go up. We saw a similar sort of jump when the American rescue package was agreed all of those weeks ago. That's the same rescue package which, it is generally agreed, hasn't worked. The same will be true for this one.

This was all about politics. New Labour became plain old Labour again today. It abandoned all pretence, abandoned the middle ground and started along the inevitable path of regulation, state subsidy for anything and everything and squeezing the rich, which apparently means everyone earning more than 20 grand. This is all worryingly redolent of the 1970s, the last time borrowing was so high. New Labour was invented to counter that image of the party as spendthrift, reckless and incompetent. That was why Brown used to talk about prudence. That was why they promised not to raise taxes. All of that has now been abandoned.

The irony is that the same may happen in America where Barack Obama is promising to create 2.5 million jobs and will have to save the likes of GM, Chrysler and Ford.

The question is will the British public buy it? Do they remember the 70s? If Brown and Darling get at least the benefit of the doubt then an election is on. That ultimately was what this was about. Brown and Darling have just spent £20 billion in an attempt to buy a fourth term.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

It's On

According to Nick Robinson of the BBC, the government is going to announce a rise in the top rate of tax for those earning more than £150,000 to 45%. It's a clever political move, although an economic nonsense. It is boxing in the Tories even more than previously. Will they be for or against it? It also breaks with a previous pledge made by Labour not to raise the top rate of tax.

Let's be clear. This does not raise much money. This raises a couple of billion a year and not until after the next election. Borrowing is set to expand massively with borrowing at £120 billion or 9 % of GDP next year. That is eye watering and will take years to get back under control. Rises in tax for the rich will not do it. We will all have to pay much more.

Anyone in any doubt about the potential for an early election need only look at this announcement tomorrow. They will deny it of course but the pieces are being lined up for an election next year. There is now clear blue water between the parties. Will Labour be able to hold their line that they are doing the 'right' things for the economy? Will the Conservatives be able to paint the government as irresponsible and reckless? Will the economy improve or get worse? Can Brown afford to wait if he thinks unemployment is set to rise and deflation is a real risk?

My bet is an election in May or June and maybe even earlier. Tomorrow will be the opening salvo in an election campaign.

Cut and Run

It would seem that the much anticipated tax package we are going to be given tomorrow is going to take the form of a 2.5% cut in VAT. There may be other measures as well but this is the headline cut, the one which they will be hoping gives the economy a boost.

Cutting VAT has the definite advantage that it can be delivered quickly and easily. There will be no form filling.The government just announces that the tax will be cut and it magically disappears, just as rises in petrol and alcohol duties appear within hours under other circumstances.

But will it work as a stimulus package? I really don't see how it can. All across the country retailers are already cutting prices a full month before Christmas. They are cutting prices not by a paltry 2.5 % but by 10, 20, 30 or 40 %. New car prices are being discounted heavily and yet car sales are still falling. House prices are plummeting with housebuilders offering huge discounts just like retailers. They are doing that because people are not spending. People are not spending because budgets are severely constrained. People are fearful about their jobs, about paying bills. Mortgages have increased as lenders withdraw their most competitive packages. Gas and electricity bills have gone through the roof. Petrol prices have started to come down again but the prices of earlier in the year have impacted budgets. Just last week new higher train prices were announced. How is a 2.5 % VAT cut going to make any difference?

It isn't as if this plan gives people money they would otherwise not have had. All that this does is reduces by a couple of quid the prices they are going to have to pay. They still have to find the money in the first place and that is the difficulty for millions this Christmas. The fall of the Pound recently should mean that our exports are cheaper and more competitive. But on the other hand imports of those toys and games many will be buying will be more expensive. Sony announced last week it is to raise prices. They will not be alone. The Pound has dropped by around 25 % recently so a small drop in VAT will make little difference.

And is it a sign of responsibility for the government to be encouraging the public to go out and spend anyway? What got us into this mess in the first place? We are having a credit crunch now because previously we had a credit binge. People felt wealthy because the economy was growing, house prices were rising and they borrowed heavily encouraged by the banks. Now that this has gone into reverse the natural and sensible thing to do for consumers faced with an uncertain future is to cut spending, reduce borrowing and make economies. The same should be true for the government. Instead, like a problem gambler, they are having one last big bet in the hope of recouping their losses.

Some of the other ideas that are being leaked about tomorrow's announcement are perfectly sensible. Postponing the planned rise in vehicle excise duty is reasonable. It is not good to raise taxes in a recession. Scrapping the rise in corporation tax for small companies is also sensible, indeed that is the sort of tax which ought to be cut in order to save jobs. Similarly the tax exemption for foreign dividends ought to stem the tide of companies relocating abroad and taking jobs with them.

Taken in total this package is going to cost around £15 billion and so nothing like as big as some hoped and others, me for instance, feared. Possibly the Treasury has realised that this would be too much and would risk doing damage to the Pound and be difficult to fund given that borrowing is already increasing and set to get much worse even without tax cuts.

But this just proves how much of a sham this package really is. It is nothing like enough to make any difference. It is a purely political exercise designed to make the government look dynamic and caring. Gordon Brown has grown addicted to his self image as the international man of action, the ideas man, the man for a crisis. He has used the G20 meeting last week as cover for what he is planning, claiming that the whole world will be doing the same. But the language of the G20 was cautious, talking of fiscal packages being necessary but dependent upon individual nations' circumstances. Since we have been consistently borrowing heavily even during the boom years our room to boost our failing economy is severely limited. Consequently this package is inadequate and cannot achieve what Brown will claim for it. It is designed to back the Tories into a corner. It is a gamble designed to further boost Brown's opinion polls standing, possibly in time for an election in the Spring. Brown has of course denied this but then he did the same last year about the election that never was but which we all know he wanted to have.

Brown is planning to cut and run. He is cutting taxes and will run to the Palace to ask for an election next year before things get really bad.

Will he get away with it? He might do. The Conservative response to all of this has been confused and lacklustre. The government has done so many U turns it is spinning in circles and yet they have managed to present themselves as pragmatic rather than cynical. If they can continue to do so for the next few months they can make a dash to the ballot box and secure another term.

It's all a gamble. The polls can change extraordinarily quickly. An impending election can, as we saw last year, galvanise the Tories. At the moment though Brown is looking confident and is doing all of the running. Just two months ago Labour MPs thought he might be deposed. Now they think he will call an election and win.

Conventional

Ah Leah, how I adore her. Even when she is mad at me and ignoring me she finds a way of communicating without communicating. This is why I know that all will be well with us in the end, that we will get married, have kids and be happy. All relationships have their ups and downs and we have had ours. But we still love each other and keep being drawn to one another. I find this reassuring.

This coming week I should hear whether or not I have got an interview for the jobs I've applied for. This will then entail an interview next week some time, although I won't know when until I hear from them. Once I know that then I can arrange to go and see Leah and get her to stop being mad at me. I don't think it will take much. The only reason she is mad at me is because I haven't managed to get there yet. So logically once I'm there she will have nothing left to be mad at, especially as I intend to ensure that we will never be apart again and certainly never have such a great distance between us.

I want her here with me. I will even let her take charge of the remote control. If Leah wanted to watch Strictly Come Dancing or the X Factor I would put up with it for her. I once had Lisa stay with me and let her watch programmes such as the X Factor and even darts for god's sake. There are certain things men are prepared to put up with for the woman they love, including feminised television, overheated rooms and having to remember to put the toilet seat down.

These are the sacrifices one has to make. In return I get to share a bed with the loveliest, sexiest and most beautiful woman I've ever known. In return I get to spend evenings with her curled up on the sofa. In return I get to take her out, to hold her hand, to get close to someone and open with someone.

I long for all of that. She is the reason I've applied for these jobs. No more the fly by night bachelor life for me. I want security and stability so that Leah and Paul can be a reality. I had no idea I was so conventional.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Being Normal

I am by and large a fairly independent and self sufficient sort of chap. I've never really needed people as such. That isn't to say I don't like company and family and friends. I'm as gregarious as they come and am generally the life and soul of the party. But I don't need people around me. I am happy in my own company.

But lately I have been thinking how nice it would be to not live alone. More than that I've been thinking how nice it would be to settle down and have kids! I keep seeing other people's kids on tv and getting all warm and fuzzy. I kept smiling indulgently when Barack Obama was shown taking his beautiful daughters to school.

I want Leah with me as soon as possible. I have tried to get in touch with her this week to say so but she has ignored me. But to be fair this is not the sort of thing that can be said over the internet anyway. I am going to go and say it to her in person. I was just trying to say that I was on my way. But I can let her know by other means.

I've decided to abandon my physiotherapy and to just go and see Leah. If I'm honest I would rather have gone and seen her when I was fitter and slimmer and healthier and this has always been in the back of my mind. But I'm not bad. Am I as fit and slim as I would like to be? Well no. But if I waited for that to happen I could wait forever.

I'm going to go and see Leah and ask her to marry me around the end of the month. Hopefully I shall get an interview for a job I've applied for in the next few days and that will just add to my certainty that all will be well.

I want all of those conventional things that I thought I didn't want. I want a wife and a family. My Mom called me today and asked me if I wanted to go there for Christmas. I do. I want to go and take Leah with me. How very conventional and surprisingly normal of me.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Profligacy

On Monday the British government is going to spend spend spend in an attempt to save us from the disaster of a devastating recession. There are many people who support them in this. Gordon Brown has attempted to fiddle the figures and show that we are not so badly in debt as is alleged. When he came to power in 97 he set out his 'rules' for debt and borrowing and what he called 'investment'. Yet he has broken his own rules. If he is unable to comply with his own rules which have been shifted constantly then how can we believe his promises for the future?

We know that the recession we are already in is going to be bad. What is going to be proposed on Monday is going to make no difference and is actually going to make matters worse. The fall of the Pound means that foreign investors are going to be reluctant to buy our debt without an enormous return on their money which will cost us hugely. If they sell this debt to domestic investors then that takes money out of the economy at the same time as they are injecting money into the economy through tax cuts and other fiscal methods. So what is the point?

This recession is happening for a reason. It is a correction, a correction for years of profligacy and hubristic ideas of a new financial paradigm for which Gordon Brown was one of the leading cheerleaders. People persuaded themselves that property and shares were a one way bet when history and experience tells us that there is no such thing. They told themselves that, because of the emergence of China and India amongst others, the new globalised economy was more balanced and thus immune to what we are seeing now. In reality the opposite is true. Now we are all connected. Now none of us are immune. Now it happens to us all and it happens even more quickly. Three months ago we thought we had got through the worst, now we don't know if the worst is yet to come.

Yet this profligacy is now set to be repeated at an official level. Governments are set to throw more money into the system in a forlorn attempt to undo what is already done and set to get worse. When will they ever learn? Governments are powerless in the face of the vastness of the market. The best they can do is cushion the blow for those who are caught out. To pretend that they can prevent what is going to happen is absurd and at variance with logic and experience. The current betting is that they will throw £15 billion at the problem. That is nothing. It is a drop on the ocean. It will have no effect other than slowing down the recovery by raising taxes just as we are emerging from the trenches.

Look around at what is happening in the world. Companies like Woolworths, Citibank and the American motor companies are struggling for survival. Citibank expanded too quickly, became too confident and will pay a heavy price. It may well be broken up. That is no bad thing. Woolworths is a company that has lost its way and, if it disappeared from the high street tomorrow, nobody would notice. The American motor manufacturers are in the position that they are because they make cars which aren't very good. For decades they had a captive market
and became complacent. Then, when the Germans and the Japanese came along they didn't respond. They have gigantic costs foisted on them by the unions, they have failed to keep up with technology and now make inferior products. The same thing happened to the British car industry. Now the giants of America are going cap in hand to the US government and demanding handouts because if they fail it would be a disaster for the economy. But would it? Do they have a plan to turn around their companies? It would be better to let them go into bankruptcy and force them to make much needed changes than shelter them with taxpayer Dollars and just store up future problems.

And that is the problem for all economies in microcosm. This recession is happening because too many people assumed that things would stay the same forever and failed to invest and save for the future. The British government did the same. Now they are planning to borrow even more in the forlorn hope that this will make things better. It won't. The government is like a gambler who is staring at huge losses and decides to gamble everything on one last bet to make up all of the losses. It won't work. The only solution is to batten down the hatches, make economies and to emerge at the other end leaner and fitter and hopefully wiser. That is what recessions do.

Holding the World to Ransom

If it's not bad enough that the world is plunging into a deep and nasty recession which shows every sign of becoming a deflationary slump, if it's not bad enough that governments around the world are scratching around for answers and seem intent on throwing tens of billions at the problem despite having no clear idea if this will work, if it's not bad enough that giant companies like Chrysler, Ford and General Motors are holding out the begging bowl for fear of being bankrupt in a few months time, if all of this is insufficient to make us want to go to bed and hibernate for a few months, we also have the spectacle of the re-emergence of piracy on the high seas, specifically in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of lawless Somalia. In fact this is one of the rare growth industries in the world.

As usual the so called 'international community' is slow to react and feeble even when it does. Foreign ministers are speaking out against the paying of ransoms but conspicuously fail to come up with many ideas to prevent further hijackings. There are currently 15 ships being held off the Somali coast and the pirates are becoming ever more brazen in their approach. It isn't as if what they are doing is particularly difficult. They just get some high speed boats, catch up with their potential prize, climb on board with little difficulty and find a crew member, any crew member and take him or her hostage. Game over. Let the negotiations start. Then order that Mercedes and presumably give the ship delivering it free passage.

The pirates aren't even particularly well armed. It isn't as if they go on board toting RPGs and the like. Apparently some ships have been taken by men wielding swords. There is no record of them having wooden legs or parrots on their shoulders but, other than the fast boats they arrive on, these are not sophisticated or peculiarly modern crimes except of course for the size and content of the ships they take.

In an attempt to prevent all of this there are dozens of military vessels in the area and they have had a couple of successes this week. But at the same time another 9 ships have been hijacked including an oil tanker, The Sirius Star, with $100 million of oil on board. The hijackers have demanded a $25 million ransom. The way the oil price is going this week the owners may end up telling the hijackers to keep it as the more economical option.

The problem is that this is a vast area of ocean for the navy of whatever country to patrol. Even with several countries sending ships it is too vast to cover. Yet when they have caught pirates red handed as the British did a few days ago and the Indians did just yesterday, the pirates never stood a chance. They either ran away or surrendered. A change of tactics is clearly required.

Why not convoys? It worked in the war against German U Boats and so why not now? Tell ships to wait at a safe point and then have a couple of navy vessels escort them through the danger area in a convoy. If that means their journey takes a little longer because of the wait then so be it. At least that way they will arrive. This seems like the obvious solution to me, other than simply sending the ships another way or keep paying the ransoms. All it will take is a little cooperation between the various countries operating naval vessels and the owners and operators of the merchant ships. How hard can it be?

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Killjoys

So much for democracy and audience participation. John Sergeant, the people's champion of all things terpsichorean, has pulled out of Strictly Come Dancing just in case he wins the damned thing. Thus the bullies and the killjoys have won and defeated this little joke. On the plus side however it means that there is no need for me to break my own rule and watch the programme this week. I might even have voted.

But for all those put out by this piece of broadcasting fascism, why not boycott the programme and definitely boycott the voting. Why can't these people take a joke? Are they put out to discover that the British viewing public is not taking them and their camp festival of naffness entirely seriously? Are they put out now that they know we do not consider this to be a proper competition but a pointless parade of desperate has beens in bright costumes?

Bring back John Sergeant. At least he is one of the few who refused to take the whole thing seriously. I suspect that was why the British people voted for him.

Extra content

As you will have noticed, I have been playing around with the content and appearance of this blog. Right at the bottom of the page you will find the art of Salvador Dali and pictures from the world of astronomy. I did try them up near the top but they didn't really fit. So at the top I'm trying out the factoids you see there right now. Nothing seems to fit there very well but these are the best I've found thus far. Don't be surprised if it is replaced some time soon however.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Strictly Crap Dancing

As a general rule I never watch reality programmes such as Big Brother or any programme with celebrity in the title. The current series of X Factor, I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here or Strictly Come Dancing have completely passed me by. I do not feel in any way culturally impoverished by this.

Yet over the last few days the media has been full of the hysterically funny story of the contestants in two of these shows who, frankly, are not very good and yet keep making it through to the next round. In the ludicrous Strictly Come Dancing, John Sergeant, a man with two left feet, has made it through to the latter stages to the chagrin of the judges and his fellow contestants. I saw a clip on the news and he is genuinely awful. I could dance better and I have a numb left foot and buttock. Similarly a contestant in this year's X Factor (don't ask me what his name is - I don't watch it and don't care enough to find out) apparently is not terribly good at singing. The judges have been horrible about him and yet he keeps winning through.

I think this is wonderful. Let's face facts. The X Factor is a tawdry little show which exploits people who imagine that they have talent and tends to put on screen the ones with the most compelling back stories. As I understand it this bad singer has a particularly awful and tear jerking story because his wife died recently. Cannily he exploits this and is voted for despite his karaoke style warbling. So this show is being hoist by its own petard. Simon Cowell may not end up with an artist worth signing and he won't sell so many records this year with his latest 'find' who disappears within a few months once the public forget about him or her. In all of the history of this show they have discovered one genuinely talented artist, the lovely Leona Lewis. The rest have faded back into richly deserved obscurity. The only people who gain are the judges, the producers, the TV company and the telephone companies who handle all of the votes. That Cowell and co are now moaning is rich. The public are having a little fun with them.

Similarly on the BBC, Strictly Come Dancing's judges have reacted with fury that the public has ignored their advice. A survey of SCD voters found that 53 per cent of those who voted for John Sergeant did so to rile the judges. And how richly they deserve to be riled.

This is not a show about dancing. It is a show about people who used to be famous making a last desperate attempt to regain that fame by dressing up in sequins and tight fitting costumes and hoping to god that the public likes them. If they win are they going to become professional ballroom dancers? No. They are going to sell their stories to tabloid newspapers, get offered other TV shows and generally capitalise on their newly revitalised fame.

I have always hated these sort of shows because they are so desperate and awful. I had always despised people who watch them, well not all of them because my Mom is one of them. But now I see that I may have been wrong. The public may not be as credulous as I had imagined. They may indeed be watching with their irony circuit fully engaged. They may appreciate just how ridiculous and needy these people are, whether they are unknown wannabes or once weres who wannabe again. A bunch of losers have just flown out to Australia to compete in the latest series in the jungle. Presumably the public will inflict similar punishment on them too.

I'm not saying that I have been converted and will start watching this crap. I still can't bring myself to do so. I feel more embarrassed for them than they do for themselves. But it does the heart good to know that our sense of humour is still going strong and is being deployed against the likes of Simon Cowell. It makes me feel rather proud to be British.

Stimulating

It is looking almost certain that next week we will see the announcement of a huge fiscal stimulus package from the government amounting to at least £15 billion and possibly up to £30 billion. This will be handed out no doubt via Gordon Brown's pet project the burdensome, bureaucratic and often inefficient tax credit system and will thus target the low paid.

Will it work? Who knows! Economists are divided on the issue as they are on almost everything. These are unprecedented times which nobody saw coming and which continue to surprise us. Gordon Brown is striding around, his head held high, now that his confidence has returned. Yet he has no idea whether this will work. Perhaps he doesn't care. Perhaps the intention is that he hands out tax cuts and then makes a dash to the polls next spring when the money is in people's pockets. If the current opinion poll trend continues and the Tories continue their confused and lacklustre response, Brown may well be in the lead by then.

This may well be his best strategy. A fiscal stimulus may well have little or no effect, especially one targeted at the low paid. In theory tax cuts can actually pay for themselves because the money goes into the economy and boosts growth. But that is a general tax cut to everyone. Will the same work for people struggling to pay their energy bills?

Let us not forget that tax cuts have already been tried this year. In America the Bush government rushed through a package which handed back hundreds of Dollars. It has had no noticeable effect. And, lest we forget, we had one here too. Brown got himself into an almighty mess with the abolition of the 10p tax band. He resolved this crisis by handing out a tax cut, funded from extra borrowing, which targeted the low paid. Sound familiar? Does it seem to have had any effect?

I am not saying that tax cuts have no effect. But they are not a panacea and they are unlikely to have the kind of instant effect some are expecting and predicting. They are like interest rates which take months to feed into the system and loosen or tighten the purse strings. The only way that tax cuts could have the kind of effect expected of them is if they were so vast as to render them unaffordable. Even if Brown and Darling opt for the £30 billion option it is unlikely to be big enough to compensate for the deterioration we have already seen in the economy. We are already in a recession. They may be about to pour in a sum of money roughly equivalent to what we have already or are about to lose. Thus the effect will be negligible.

But what is the alternative? The Conservatives are scratching around for one having been consummately outflanked. Their proposals last week for helping employers create new jobs seemed rather pointless. They would be better off finding ways to help employers keep those already in jobs in their jobs.

And that should be where any tax cuts should be concentrated. Theories about giving people money in their pockets which they then spend which then boosts the economy are just theories. There is no control over what people then do with that money. Targeting employers would be a much better idea surely? We are at risk of seeing a huge rise in unemployment. This will cost more in unemployment and other benefits. It will cause problems for retailers as sales are hit. It will cause more people to fall into arrears with mortgages and thus hit an already diving housing market which has a knock-on effect on everything.

If we must throw money into the economy we should be concentrating it on tax breaks for companies, freeing up lending to perfectly viable companies whose credit facilities have been withdrawn thanks to the credit crunch and cuts in the costs of employing people. Even this would take time to feed through but would have a higher chance of success.

Will we see such a programme? Probably not. We won't see this because this has all become about politics and little to do with economics. The parties are competing to sound the most competent and compassionate and in so doing are taking the wrong measures for the wrong reasons and at the wrong time. And in a couple of years time we will all have to pay for it as Gordon or whoever is in charge by then comes back with his other hand outstretched and asks for the money back.

Titular Head

In the Sunday Times this weekend, it was revealed that Prince Charles, when he becomes king, plans on continuing to speak out on issues of concern to him. Of course he hasn't had the guts to propose this himself, instead he gets one of those subservient lackeys, in this case his so called friend, Jonathan Dimbleby, to report it. It's what is known in politics as the floating of an idea to see if anyone shoots it down. Let's not just shoot it down, let's nuke it.

If Charles wants the right to speak out on issues he has a clear choice - he can renounce the throne and then be free to speak out just as any private citizen can or he can stand for election and become a president instead of king abolishing that office as Oliver Cromwell did after the reign of another King Charles. He could even do the nation a service and establish a clear constitution with a proper demarcation and separation of powers between a presidency, judiciary, Civil Service, Parliament and the executive headed by the Prime Minister. If he were to come to us arguing for proper change and an end to the present corrupt and outdated system then even I would vote for him.

But of course that isn't what he wants. He wants the wealth and privileges he has now which already include the ear of the elected government. But that's not enough. He also wants the right to intervene in issues and speak his mind. In so doing he would be seeking to undo what British history has achieved since that other Charles was beheaded. Monarchs do not speak out in public about issues because they have no right to do so. They have the privilege of being able to speak in private and some of us resent even that. That he should now be so arrogant to assume he has the right to ignore this is breathtaking.

This article in the Sunday Times is another PR exercise inserted into a sycophantic media. He has been doing it for years since the death of Diana. He has been seeking to slowly and subtly improve the image of his wife who remains the Duchess of Cornwall and not the Princess of Wales. What is the betting however that he will break promises and demand the right to have her named as Queen if and when he is crowned. Does he think we don't realise what he and his cronies are up to?

Yet all of this just proves why this man is not fit to be a king or a politician, although he breaks promises and goes back on undertakings just like the best or worst of them. It proves that people fit for top jobs emerge because of innate talent and a willingness to work hard and make sacrifices. Charles doesn't understand what any of that means. Does he understand the meaning of the word impolitic? If he wants a change to his future job description should he not have the gumption to actually say so rather than get his chums to drop hints? Does he think he can just accede to the throne and carry on regardless? It would seem so.

This is why the establishment in this country so approve of our very flexible constitution which exists in name only. There is no definition of what a king can and can't do except as written in statute and those can easily be amended or repealed. There is no actual stipulation anywhere in the law preventing the monarch from speaking out but it is a convention which has been observed for many years and has ensured the survival of the monarchy. Now along comes Charles with his often wacky or plain wrong opinions on various subjects and instead of having the good sense to keep them to himself he wants the right to speak out. What next? Is he going to ask for input into aspects of policy? Is he going to exercise his theoretical right to veto legislation?

Now I consider him to be an absurd figure with half baked opinions and a self image which has been ridiculously inflated because he is surrounded by lackeys and sycophants. He seems to think of himself as some kind of intellectual and the various nauseatingly obsequious columns about him this last week will only have reinforced that opinion. He has managed, thanks to a compliant press, to repair his image and now seems to be held in a certain amount of affection by many. This is why the monarchy remains popular. They are very good at managing their image. Even last week when it was revealed the extent of Prince William's joyriding at our expense, the media largely ignored it. Yet when a politician accepts a helicopter ride from a businessman the media are all over the story ensuring that it was correctly registered.

But if King Charles is intent on interfering then things may change. Politicians like the monarchy because they cannot interfere. Even if they try they can be ignored. But if they start speaking out and interjecting what will happen? The monarchy continues to exist and be tolerated because it is ceremonial and titular. Power shifted a long time ago and isn't coming back. The royal family lead a ridiculously privileged and luxurious life for which they do very little. The price we exact for this is that they shut up, smile and wave. If that is not enough for our next king then tough. That is the deal.

I along with many others will be watching and waiting and hoping that he really is stupid enough to want to speak out. This could be the beginning of the end.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Cyber Sensibilities

Over the last few days there has been a great deal of fuss and an even greater amount of hilarity in the media with regard to a couple who were granted a divorce this week because he was virtually unfaithful to her. When I say virtually I do not mean that he tried and missed or that he was unable to rise to the occasion despite clear intent. I mean that he was caught by his wife having sex online with another woman. Or at least we assume it was a woman. Online one can never tell.

The forum for this infidelity was the apparently enormously popular site Second Life. I had never heard of it before but was aware of the existence of such places even if I had never felt the need to seek one out. 15 million people are registered users with this site alone. They pay to set up their own idealised versions of themselves as avatars, build houses and have, as the name implies, a second life and indeed a second sex life. I suspect they may seek out this second life as a consequence of their lack of a first life.

Don't get me wrong. I love the internet. I love talking to people on the internet. I met Leah and a number of other people on the internet. And of course on the internet it is easy to represent oneself as being a different person or at least to de-emphasise some features and neglect to mention others. But then most people do that when talking face to face. When talking to new people, especially the opposite sex, we seek to represent outselves in the best possible light. Eventually they get the full and unembellished truth. If you're lucky they stick around.

I've never really seen the appeal of having online sex though. I know that lots of men surf various chat sites looking for cyber sex with random women. I know this because women have told me this and usually begin conversations with 'I don't do cyber.' Eventually I bored of such chat rooms anyway. I met three or four decent people over several years. I even had proper sex with a couple of them, by which I mean the real versions of ourselves met up, had dinner, went to a hotel and then slept together.

And I did once try cyber sex with someone. It was all rather embarrassing frankly, although she said she enjoyed it. I couldn't see the point. What's wrong with porn if you need a bit of tittilation?

This is not to say that such things are always a bad idea. I just don't particularly want to have wordy gyrations with some random woman I hardly know and cannot see. With someone I do know and can visualise that might be entirely different. Leah once asked me to describe to her what I wanted to do with her in bed and I did and it was an entirely different feeling. I suppose doing the same over the internet would be the same. I would definitely be up for that, albeit as a poor substitute for the real thing which will hopefully happen soon anyway. I think I shall be able to go in the next couple of weeks.

A few months ago on my old and now sadly deleted blog I wrote a short story for Leah which had a similar sexual element to it. I did this because a former long distance girlfriend used to like it and actively asked me to write them for her. Leah however objected to these stories and so I ended and deleted them. I've often wondered if she secretly liked them. I'd write one a day and send it privately by e-mail if she wanted me to. And they would be romantic as well as sexy. That would be easy because they would be about Leah and I love Leah. My imagination is easily sparked by Leah.

So maybe that couple from Cornwall were correct after all. Perhaps cyber sex is a form of betrayal. Or perhaps it was just that their second life was better than their real life and she, the woman scorned, knew her husband preferred his virtual partner. Given that they are both in real life morbidly obese this is probably the case.

But I don't need a virtual perfect woman I have a real flesh and bones perfect woman waiting for me. Only my malfunctioning body is preventing me going there for the time being. The distance between us has been shrunk to some extent thanks to the internet but it remains there. I can meet up with her in as many chat rooms as she likes and make cyber love to her over and over again. But if I want to get her to spend the rest of her life with me I have to get there and say so face to face. I am going to do that and soon. I just wish she would talk to me in the meantime. I know she wants to.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Economic Super Heroes?

So the leaders of the 20 largest economies have met for a few paltry hours this weekend but in that time have saved the world. Well, that's what they're telling us anyway.

In reality they have agreed a series of impressive sounding commitments but no action plan for realising these entirely laudable aims. They might as well have made commitments to eradicating poverty, hunger and disease and establishing world peace. We all know that restarting growth is needed. We didn't need 20 large delegations to cross the world to reach this conclusion, it's something of a given.

Have a read of the full communique for yourself:

http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/economics/article5162735.ece

It's one long statement of the bleeding obvious accompanied by various statements which have either been contradicted by recent words and actions or soon will be. Right at the top of the communique they state their 'shared belief' in market principles, open trade and investment regimes. Yet this is a meeting which included the Chinese with their currency pegged to the Dollar to the intense irritation of the Americans. It also of course included Gordon Brown who only yesterday lectured the Americans about their proposed support package for the tottering car giants.

The root causes of the recent economic travails were, we are told, down to bad and opaque investment practice and poor policy and regulation of that policy. Is that an admission of failure by Gordon Brown amongst others? I doubt that they will say so once away from their collective communique drafting committee.

Then we get down to the nitty gritty of what they are actually going to do. They remind us of what they have done of course but this reminder of the recent past stands in marked contrast to what they have agreed to do in the near future. Lots of cooperation is going to come apparently and, with a wave of their recently invented magic wand, this will restore growth. Unspecified action will be taken, as necessary, to stabilise the financial system. In other words, as expected, they don't really know what they are going to do, would be unable to agree even if they could decide but are unanimous that they must coordinate their claims of being across the problem and ready, as Gordon Brown always tells us, to do what is 'right' for the economy. So that's a relief. Who needs detail?

They will also use fiscal measures to stimulate demand. This is the fig leaf that Gordon Brown will have been arguing for. With this innocuous sounding sentence he will be able to claim that he must go on a vast spending and borrowing spree. Prudence has flown. The end of boom and bust is long forgotten. We are very much into the bust phase now but Gordon will insist that this is necessary. He will no doubt say that it is 'right' as usual without any supporting evidence whilst ignoring inconvenient facts like the recent and ongoing collapse of the Pound.

Today George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, broke his recent silence to echo the dire warnings of many about the risks to the Pound as Labour embark on their spending spree. Brown today criticised him for this possibly because he would rather we didn't mention it. This of course is the giant flaw in his argument. It is all very well for other countries around the world to promise a gigantic fiscal stimulus. Most other countries can afford to do so. The Pound is falling like a stone as investors pile out of Britain heading for safer havens like the Dollar, Euro and Yen.

It is reported in tomorrow's Sunday Times that the Conservative lead over Labour has now fallen to just five points. The Conservatives, who had a quiet conference in the midst of the economic crisis have stayed quiet ever since. This will undoubtedly embolden Brown to do as promised and deliver a vast fiscal stimulus. There is talk of him handing out this cash in the form of tax cuts and tax credits for the low paid. The rationale behind this is that they are more likely to spend this money. This of course is true. But what will they spend it on? They will have a few extra Pounds and will now be able to pay their gas and electricity bills. They might take a trip to Argos and buy a few Chinese made goods for Christmas. Are they going to start buying houses? Are they going to buy a new car? No. This fiscal stimulus will be tiny and will represent a slightly less awful winter for those at the bottom. This is no bad thing of course but it doesn't do what Brown will claim for it.

Ultimately, unless they can afford to spend huge amounts, the fiscal stimulae on offer are more about politics than economics. Earlier this year the Bush government tried handing out cheques to tax payers and it had little or no effect. The same will be true here and all around the world unless the handout is gigantic. In Britain that simply cannot be afforded unless we are to see a revaluation of the Pound which would undo any good done by that extra money.

We are in recession. The damage has already been done. No grandstanding or flowery words from world leaders is going to change that. Most of the world's leading economies will shrink, prices will fall, interest rates will be cut, markets will readjust and then eventually things will pick up again because people realise that there is money to be made. That is the way it works. In the meantime we just have to tighten our belts, batten down the hatches and forget any ideas about politicians' magic wands.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Divine Right?

Today is the sixtieth birthday of Prince Charles, an occasion which has been commemorated in the British press with a nauseating cacophony of tributes and forelock tugging which would have better suited the first Elizabethan age. The BBC in particular devoted 90 minutes of BBC1 peaktime the other night to a hagiography so fawning and uncritical only the fact it was made in colour would have persuaded the viewer that he wasn't living in a more deferential age 50 years ago.

Now I am opposed to the monarchy on a point of principle. We live in a nation which is supposed to be a meritocracy, in which we are supposed to be able to get on, thrive and prosper based on our talents, perseverence and hard work. Now we all know that this is rarely the complete story. There are plenty of people who lead gilded lives because they were born into the right families, had the right connections, could afford the best education etc. There was a programme on the television tonight about barristers which reinforced this point. The costs and risks of becoming a barrister are so high that people from poor or working class or even lower level middle class backgrounds would struggle to afford it. But the idea of a meritocracy is a powerful one. No system is perfect but we can at least have principles to aspire to.

And yet we have enshrined in our system, in the very constitution such as it is, the notion that our head of state can be drawn not from one class, not from the merely privileged, not even from the well connected but from just one family. Regardless of his talents, attitudes and suitability the eldest son of this family will be given the job to the excusion of all else. The only way that this can be prevented is by act of Parliament. The public don't get a look in. That is simply wrong.

And let's take a look at our next king who has now reached the age of sixty. What has he done with his life? He has admittedly done a bit for charity but then so he should given that he has the highest of high profiles and doesn't have to work for a living.

This man who had the best of education, the best of chances got a mediocre degree. He then served some time in the Navy where he miraculously managed to command a ship for a time, although whether he deserved this rank on his own merits is doubtful. Since then he has done his various royal engagements and lived very well on his guaranteed income from the Duchy of Cornwall, the vast estates (135, 000 acres) that the heir to the throne is given in a throwback to feudal times. He remains exempt from tax and Parliamentary scrutiny of these estates is not allowed. There was us thinking that centuries of British history and wars had won us the power to make our monarchy constitutional and subject to the same laws as the rest of us.

This spoilt, selfish, self obsessed and socially inept man would have found it very difficult to do well in any career if he did not have his title and privileges. Yet because he has these things he opines on all manner of subjects, usually getting his facts hopelessly wrong, and these opinions are uncritically reported across the media. There is no need for Charles to have his own blog he can give speeches about GM crops or architecture despite his lack of any credentials for doing so and those speeches will be disseminated far and wide purely because of who he is. Silly and credulous people will probably agree with him because 'he ought to know.'

And what of his personal behaviour? If he were a politician, which for all intents and purposes he is albeit without ever having to do anything so inconvenient as having to justify himself or stand for election, he would have had to stand down from office. His behaviour has been appalling. He married a young woman he did not love and did so purely because she was young, innocent and virginal and thus unsullied by scandal. To him she was just a baby making machine, someone with whom to make an heir and a spare so as to keep the family business going. Sadly she did not bring any brains into the equation because their resultant two sons are as thick as the rest of the family and blessed with the same hairline. Charles then proceeded to make Diana's life a misery as he had no intention of staying faithful to her, arrogantly believing that he would be able to do as most royal males have done, including his father, and have mistresses. Then, when his wife became popular because she was able to relate to the public in a way that the rest of that emotionally stunted family could never do, he became jealous of her. They gradually became estranged and she was frozen out. Their spiteful attitude towards her for having the temerity to rebel against their controlling disgusting behaviour was so typical of their arrogant disdain for everyone who is not in 'the firm'.

So sixty years of the Prince of Wales is not something we should be celebrating and we certainly shouldn't be celebrating him in the way that the BBC and certain newspapers have this week. One would imagine they were writing about someone of Churchillian stature rather than someone who cuts ribbons, shakes hands and gives bad, monotonous and ill informed speeches.

Are we really expected to just stand by quietly and allow this shallow, turgid man to become our head of state? Why are we not allowed to even debate the issue? The political classes quite like the present status quo. It gives them lots of power and an acquiescent head of state incapable of holding them in check. But this is the 21st century. We live in a country which calls itself a democracy and yet has an unelected upper house of Parliament, an unelected head of state and a Prime Minister who has taken much of the power of the crown enabling him to do very much as he pleases once he has been elected.

In 1776 the Americans looked upon this system with disdain and declared themselves independent of it. They had the good sense to institute a system of checks and balances between the different branches of government and had a proper constitution to enforce those checks and balances. In Britain we have none of these things and this is exemplified by the continued existence of the monarcy and the ridiculous Prince of Wales. The worst part about this is that the fourth estate cooperates uncritically with this. The same feral press which analyses every word and nuance of anyone in public life whether they are there voluntarily or not, rolls over when it comes to the royals. It's as though they believe that the royals really are better than us, that their blood is purer and their brains better. It's almost as if the divine right of kings is still here with us 357 years after the civil war.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

One Woman Man




The above is just one of many many pictures I took on my trip to Norway last year. It's a beautiful country, a bit like Scotland in many ways. But if anything it's even more spectacular and beautiful.

Anyway, the reason I mention this is because I went there with Bhairav. Bhairav is one of my oldest and dearest friends. He lives in Norway and has done for a while now since getting work out there. Last summer he was moving from Oslo to Kristiansand to start a new job and so I volunteered to help him. We turned it into a holiday. It was a good time, a halcyon period actually. Back then my back problems hadn't started and so I was fit and healthy and feeling good.

We started off in Stavanger and met up with Bhairav's friend Terje. Terje's family, like many in Norway, have a summer house up in the mountains and fjords and so we went there for a few days. We went out on a boat on the fjord, had barbecues, drank a great deal and had a thoroughly good time. I was able to walk then which was fortunate because the summer house was at the top of a cliff and we had to carry all of the food and drink up there.

After the summer house we went to Oslo where Bhairav had a farewell meal with his colleagues and then he and I loaded up the car and drove to Kristiansand.

Anyway, the reason I am bringing all of this up now is as follows. At this time Leah and I were having another one of our periods when she wasn't speaking to me. And for some reason I became irresistible to women during this time. Terje's girlfriend, Jeanette, flirted with me outrageously as did a beautiful waitress in a bar we went to. Then when we went to Kristiansand Bhairav and I found a nice bar, ate oysters, drank and met Elin who worked there. She offered to show us around Bhairav's new home town, she too seemed to find me irresistible and I ended up kissing her.

But, as I had with the waitress and Jeanette, I stopped. I stopped because I kept thinking about Leah. I knew that I loved Leah and so I didn't start anything with anyone else.

Last weekend Bhairav, he now tells me, slept with Elin. I think he was a little worried about how I would react. But I don't care. She was a nice girl. If circumstances had been different I think I could have had a relationship with her. But I love Leah. I'm just not interested in anyone but Leah.

I want to go and see her. I'm earnestly trying to go and see her. At the moment I don't dare go because of my ongoing health difficulties. It is taking me a hell of a long time to get over that bloody operation. It isn't so much my leg or foot anymore, although I still have a limp and can't walk as far as I would like. It's the fact that all of those drugs they gave me have completely screwed up my stomach and digestive system. I won't describe the problem but suffice to say it is unpleasant and would make a trip to New York and a 7 hour flight uncomfortable and difficult.

I just have to hope that my body heals itself and soon. I know that Leah is probably mad with me and I don't blame her. But I will go there as soon as I can. I'm very aware that her birthday is coming up soon and so of course is Christmas and the New Year. I've applied for jobs which I hope will give me a steady income next year. Now I just need Leah here with me.

There's no such thing as a perfect relationship. But the closest approximation we have to that is when, despite all that has gone wrong, despite all of a person's flaws, despite the arguments and the things they do that drive you crazy, you still want to be with them. You love them anyway. That's the way I feel about Leah and I think that's how she feels about me. That's why we still end up talking to each other. That's why despite all of those Scandinavian lovelies last year all I could think of was Leah.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Recession

You have to wonder about our political leaders sometimes. We're routinely told how bright they are, how dedicated, how hard working, how inspired, how brilliant, how literate and well versed they are in everything from economics to the art of media management. But then we see their response to events and we have to wonder. We see their juvenile antics on the floor of the House of Commons, their yah booing and faux outrage and we just roll our eyes and despair.

Today the Bank of England confirmed what we already know. Britain is in recession. We are going to be in recession for most of next year. That means that we will be in recession all of next year and possibly beyond because the Bank has a tendency to hedge its bets. Given that output has already been shrinking since the middle of this year, that means we could face a recession lasting eighteen months or more. That would mean something of the order of what happened in the early eighties when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, I was still at school, Leah hadn't been born, Britain was adjusting to a new service led economy and we had only recently acquired our fourth television channel.

That recession of the early eighties came about after another Labour government had made a mess of the public finances and had nearly bankrupted the country. Thatcher always gets the blame and she did force some unpleasant medicine down the country's throat to cure the malaise. But cure it she did. Until recently Labour was enjoying the fruits of that restructuring. And yet they have squandered it on a massive splurge which is now out of control. They have consistently run a deficit despite sixteen years of continuous economic growth, so that now, when borrowing is unavoidable and certain to reach eye watering levels, they will struggle to sell the gilts that fund that borrowing. The Pound is plunging as international investors vote with their money. We have seen a devaluation that is much bigger than those of previous Labour governments in the sixties and seventies. Are we destined to see them call in the IMF again? Is Brown going to claim as Wilson once did that this devaluation won't affect the Pound in our pockets? I wouldn't put it past him.

The response of the opposition parties has been feeble at best. The Conservatives made reasonable intellectual arguments but they were politically inept. The man in the street doesn't want charts and economic analysis he needs imagery. They should have talked about the devaluation of the Pound. That reveals the stark reality of what the world thinks about our chances. That is international markets telling Brown what they think of his argument that Britain is uniquely well placed to weather the coming storm. The Conservatives should be comparing Brown harshly with the likes of Wilson, Healey and Callaghan, the last Labour men to get the country into an almighty economic mess.

Yet Brown will this weekend go off to Washington and lecture the world on what we need to do to solve this world economic slowdown. Of course other countries are better placed to do what he prescribes and cut taxes or spend more on infrastructure on the Keynesian model. Britain is all spent out.

And this meeting of the so called G20 will achieve nothing anyway. At the end of the weekend we will get the usual bland assurances of collective resolve but it won't amount to anything. There will be no Bretton Woods 2, not least because America, the largest economy, will be represented by an outgoing administration with no representatives from the Obama camp present. For Brown this is just a chance to grandstand and play the world statesman whilst hoping that people forget that he is the architect of so many of our problems. We will get empty platitudes from men and women who know they can achieve nothing more than column inches and photo opportunities.

And so we will head into this recession. Later this month the Chancellor will present his plans for what Labour is going to do. But they cannot afford to do enough and so it will have no effect. The best that can be done is a cut in taxes for a while accompanied by more savage interest rate cuts. Even then we may be heading for a nasty slump and in a year's time the next government may once more be faced with a situation similar to that which faced Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Maybe that is why the Conservatives are being so lacklustre. Maybe they've just realised they would rather lose the next election and let Brown deservedly take the blame for what follows.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Oh God here she comes again.

Who do you think said the following?

"Too though ... not me personally were those cheers for?"

Was it some semi literate Big Brother type wannabe? Was it some not very bright pop star? Was it Yoda? No, it was the woman who, just a week ago, was on the verge of being Vice President of the United States. Yes, Sarah Palin, oh you betcha as she would no doubt say.

Yes, Sarah it would seem is distinctly keen on running for the top job in just four years time. This woman who claimed her proximity to Russia counted as foreign policy experience, who thought Africa was a country and who is a fervent believer in Creationism is seriously considering running, although of course she will wait for God to tell her what to do. Indeed there is a fair chance she will soon be running for a seat in the Senate. Doesn't that make your blood run cold?

I always wonder how such people think God actually communicates with them. I imagine that, as ever, it is a case of wishful thinking on their part. God is always in a win win situation here. Someone contracts a nasty disease and is on the verge of death and people pray for him or her. If he dies it was God's will. If they live it is a miracle. Thus thousands of perfectly healthy people die every year and it is a terrible tragedy. Then you get one in a million who manages to survive and God has turned up and saved them. Ignore all of the other poor bastards and focus on the one survivor. Last year a coach load of Polish pilgrims crashed to their deaths. Where was God then? Of course the usual excuses were trotted out. God doesn't intervene we are told, he doesn't get involved. So why are people elevated to sainthood for their miracles then?

Anyway, Sarah Palin clearly wants to run for the Presidency. I predict that God will mysteriously tell her to do precisely that. There could be a dozen earthquakes, volcanoes and a tsunami the size of the Empire State Building. Sarah Palin would interpret that as a sign of God's looking with pleasure on her candidacy in 12 as she refers to the year of the next election.

Barack Obama is already, to his credit, incurring the wrath of God via the Catholic Church by allowing stem cell research when he gets into power. Now it seems he will once more face the wrath of ditzy Sarah and her god squad. I wouldn't bet against her getting the nomination because Republicans seem to like her for some reason. It looks like the next election cycle may be getting under way already just as we were congratulating ourselves for dodging that Palin shaped bullet.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Great Expectations

As I believe I have mentioned here before, I love Leah. I adore her. I want to spend the rest of my life with her. And I know that Leah cares for me too even if she spends much of her time being mad at me. I'm not blaming her for this. Mostly it's my fault. I have for a few weeks now been saying that I shall imminently be going over there to see her. I said this because this, genuinely, was and is my intention. Unfortunately life is rarely that simple or easy. Or at least my life isn't. But I shall get there and soon.

You see, whilst Leah is mad at me right now she still wants me to go there, sweep her off her feet and make up for lost time. She has a way of communicating these feelings to me.

I understand Leah's little ways. I understand her. This is how I know that she is the woman for me.

Anyway, it remains my intention to go and see her as soon as I can. I'm not going to go into my health and logistical difficulties here as it would make for tedious and slightly unseemly reading. But I shall overcome these difficulties and go and see Leah. There are things I want to do with Leah, things of an adult nature and things which one wants to do with one's best friend. But I will do them and I will do them soon. Once I decide to do something I always do it. It may take me time but I always get there. Watch this space for an announcement soon.

Remember

Today is Remembrance Sunday, the day when we remember and pay our respects to those who gave their lives so that we may lead the lives we take for granted, so that people like me can opine on blogs, so that we can have elections and criticise our leaders.

At 11 this morning as usual the Queen and political leaders will lay wreaths of poppies at the Cenotaph in London and there will be a 2 minute silence for the fallen. It will have an added poignancy this year as it is 90 years since the armistice which ended World War I.

I've only ever been in person to the ceremony at the Cenotaph once a few years ago. It was very moving. I was a long way away from the Queen and other dignitaries because there were so many people there. But what was moving was not the sight of so called VIPs it was the ordinary people who went to pay their respects. Grown men stood in the street with tears streaming down their faces.

And ever year we hear the following short verse. It always puts a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye and it conveys better than I ever can how I and many others feel on this Sunday every year.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.