Friday, 27 February 2009

Springtime in London

I had a nice day today as you can see above, notwithstanding Leah oversleeping after her hectic day yesterday meaning that I have not yet seen her. Instead I wandered aimlessly around London and behaved like a tourist, albeit one with his phone permanently in one hand waiting for a call that never came.

But it was a warm and beautiful sunny day today. I strolled around and my back and foot seemed to cope remarkably well. Maybe it was the sunshine or the thought of Leah close by. Or maybe I am just getting fitter.

I actually managed to enjoy myself despite the absence of the love of my life. I snapped a few pictures of London in what felt like springtime just a couple of weeks after it was covered in snow. There were crowds everywhere including lots of Europeans taking advantage of the now favourable exchange rates. Maybe this is all we need to get us out of our present rut.

A Day Off

Leah is here. I've spoken to her tonight and we are meeting up during the day. So Friday will probably be a blog free day. I apologise in advance if you get withdrawal symptoms. But frankly some things and in particular some people are more important even than my trenchant opinions.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Fat Cats and Absent Cats

Gordon Brown is doing his Macavity act again and now various ministers are trying to do the same. This particular cat has disappeared and left a banking fat cat alone with our money. They then claim to know nothing when he walks off with £16 million.

Last week the government talked tough on bonuses before claiming that it was powerless to stop them all. This week it emerges that they could have stopped a huge and obscene pension pot being handed immediately to a 50 year old failed banker and they either did not prevent or failed to realise that they could have prevented this fattest of all fat cats, Sir Fred Goodwin (knighted by this government) from laughing all the way from the bank.

Gordon Brown has today been talking tough about this, once again reacting to events. Yet, as we now know, this was all nodded through last October. So, not only did they allow the banks to be recapitalised without putting in stringent conditions on pay and bonuses, they demanded that Fred Goodwin leave immediately but allowed him to be rewarded for doing so.

Today we get the astonishing and farcical spectacle of the government talking tough whilst at the same time pleading with Goodwin to do the decent thing. Some hope! He has written back and declined to do so, claiming that he has already suffered financially in the wake of this crisis. I'm sure the thousands of people who are now out of work thanks to Goodwin and his ilk will want to show every sympathy. It's unlikely they'll get to meet him down the local jobcentre though.

This is a stark illustration of just how dysfunctional this government has become. They cannot help but lie and spin and deny all responsibility even when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Ministers had every opportunity to stop this happening and yet are now frantically trying to do their standard Macavity act as pioneered by Gordon Brown. Is it any wonder that they this week had to ignore their own Freedom of Information legislation to deny public access to Cabinet minutes which no doubt would have revealed what they did know but have denied knowing about the legality of war in Iraq.

What is worse about all of this is more important than another greedy fat cat let off the hook by a tough talking but pusillanimous government. This is their approach to this crisis in microcosm. This is why confidence is shot. They are incapable of taking the big decisions and so we go from one debacle to another, one bank bailout to the next and more claims which are then revealed to be nonsense. Instead of nationalising RBS they just keep buying it in instalments, feeding more of our cash into this bottomless pit and watching as the bosses do as they please with it. Even when they have the ability to stop something happening they flunk it by not asking the right questions. It's simple incompetence.

This is a government which has lost control. It's fortunate for them that this crisis happened in the autumn and winter. It's been too cold so far for people to march and riot on the streets and demand an election. But it can't be far off. They would be doing the nation a favour.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Sad, Sombre and Dignified

I have often been severely critical of Gordon Brown on this blog and I will probably be so again given the state of the country. But today, a man who often finds it difficult to convey a more human and empathetic persona, came across as genuinely sorry and sympathetic to the man who usually faces him across the Despatch Box, David Cameron, on the day that Cameron's eldest son, the severely disabled Ivan sadly passed away.

Had someone told me in advance that Gordon Brown had decided to cancel Prime Minister's Questions because of this event, I might well have reacted cynically I admit. But having seen what the Prime Minister said and the dignified way he said it and remembering of course that he too lost a child a few years back, I willingly concede that I would have been wrong. Brown seems to have been genuinely moved by the day's sad events and his gesture was a kind and heartfelt one. It would have been quite wrong under the circumstances and David Cameron's absence to have carried on with the usual rough and tumble of PMQs. It would have felt inappropriate and crass. It was the right decision and a kind and sincere gesture.

Bad Science

Newsnight last night, without any irony I was able to detect, ran a feature about a warning concerning social websites. They are, certain newspapers had alleged, bad for children. They had done so in a absurdly sensationalist way alleging that such interaction is bad for brains. In my daily trawl through the newspapers in my ongoing quest to find something to be opinionated about, I had seen the story, briefly read it and dismissed it as nonsense.

As was quite correctly pointed out on the programme, the articles had come up with evidence for their hyperbolic assertion but it was cherry picked to prove their case. It ignored a huge wealth of counter evidence. QED really.

The irony of course is that this is the same programme whose science editor, Susan Watts, recently edited the inauguration speech of Barack Obama to make him say things he did not say. The irony is that she also told us in the same film that 'science tells us we have only four years to save the planet'.

Essentially Newsnight's feature made the same argument, albeit about a different subject, that those of us who are sceptical about man-made global warming have been making for years. There is evidence that man could be causing GW. But there is a lot of counter evidence too. Both should be weighed and debated if we are ever going to arrive at the truth. When dissent is silenced it removes the need for proper peer reviewed evidence and bad science results.

Environmentalists, the media, politicians, the IPCC, Al Gore and Susan bloody Watts are all guilty of doing the same thing that was so roundly and rightly criticised on last night's programme. That is not how science is supposed to work they are quite right. So why do they allow AGW propagandists to get away with it?

This year is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. His highly controversial theory had to go through years of controversy and debate before it was accepted. Indeed Darwin himself delayed publication because he knew what the reaction would be. But this benefited his theory. Darwin spent years assiduously collecting his evidence and refining his theory. After publication there were still plenty of critics and it took many years for all of their questions to be answered. But that is good. That leads to good and robust science.

Yet contrast that with what is happening with regard to global warming or climate change as it has now become known. Any doubters are shouted down. Sceptics are accused of being corrupt, blind or stupid. Scientists who come up with their computer based predictions for what is going to happen refuse to share the data they used thus denying one of the basic tenets of science - that all experiments should be repeatable before they are accepted. A scientific theory has become politicised and taken on a life of its own. That is bad science. But it could become disastrous science because it is being used to justify huge changes to our lives which may well have no impact but will cause economic problems we can ill afford.

I applaud Newsnight for demonstrating how stupid this story was. I just wish they would be consistent and employ a science editor who understands that dissent and argument is a requirement if we are to avoid more examples of bad science

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Friday's on my Mind

The beautiful, sweet, lovely and angelic Leah has relented and I shall now be spending the day with her on Friday. This makes me the happiest I have been in years.

We have this connection Leah and I. It's a strange and inexplicable thing. I don't know what it is. She doesn't know what it is. We just know that we have it. I'm no great believer in destiny and all of that sort of thing. But from the moment we met there has been something magical and inexplicable between us. Now that the distance will be gone nothing can hold us back.

Last Post

If you want a perfect illustration of why this bankrupt government is now just counting down time until it is dumped out of office, take a look at its policy on Royal Mail privatisation. In the face of huge back bench hostility, ministers are pushing this through for no very obvious reason other than their characteristic inability to admit mistakes.

The one thing that the government used to be able to do was spin even if they were often spinning about their own ineptitude. It seems even this has now deserted them. Last night there was a remarkably cack handed leak of a letter from a pension fund trustee which seemed to back government policy. On closer examination it would seem that this was a letter not only leaked by the government but that it was written at their behest. Other trustees have claimed no knowledge of it and that it is factually deficient in a number of ways.

But ultimately, as I have argued here before, this is about another example of poor and ill thought out policy. Royal Mail is losing money. In part this is because it is a chronically badly run company which needs modernisation and huge investment. But in large part this is also down to previous decisions which have put the company in a position which just exacerbated its problems. Already facing competition from the internet, e-mail, phones and text messaging, Royal Mail then had its monopoly taken away enabling private companies to come along and cherry pick the profitable parts of its business, namely bulk mail sent out by large companies. They pocketed the cash from this but were able to hand the letters over to Royal Mail for delivery to individual homes. This is the part which is the most labour intensive and thus costly.

And the pension fund problems can in part be laid at the door of the government too. Most pension funds are suffering at the moment and this has been exacerbated by Gordon Brown's tax grabs. The size of the deficit in this fund is down to the fact that it is so huge, relied on by tens of thousands of men and women who were never particularly well paid in the first place.

That this government is now trying to push through a privatisation under present circumstances just shows how managerially and politically inept they have become. Royal Mail is a public service. It may not be as important as it once was but it is still something that all modern economies need and will continue to need for the foreseeable future. Companies across the country are struggling and asking for bailouts. This is a company wholly owned by the government and whose predicament is partially the fault of the government. Yet they are trying to ram through an ill thought out remedy which will only succeed in creating industrial unrest, greater losses and yet more redundancies for low paid workers who will struggle to find other work. What are they thinking of?

The only way that they will get this through Parliament is with the help of the Conservatives. But why are the Conservatives backing this? It is a bad policy. It is economically and politically inept. It is also inconsistent. If Post Offices can be saved then why not Royal Mail? Some services have to be provided regardless of their profitability. Postal services are one of them.

If Royal Mail was going to be privatised it should have been privatised as a monopoly and competition only introduced slowly and gradually. Badly designed privatisation either creates vast private monopolies or unprofitable rumps reliant on subsidy. Rail privatisation is a case in point. There is no competition in railways. Rail companies get entire lines to themselves and so have ramped up prices for their captive customers. The railways should have been privatised by allowing two or three companies to run on the same lines and compete for passengers.

If and when the Conservatives regain power they are going to have to be pragmatic about many issues. The natural response of a conservative is that the market does things better than the public sector. The privatisations of the 80s largely proved them right. But it is not always the case. Sometimes a pragmatic decision to keep things public and invest in them is the right decision. To take a stand like that would show that they are ready and able to do what is best for the country regardless of dogma and political posturing. In so doing they could also force the government into a humiliating U turn, even if they refuse to admit that they are wrong.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Hell Hath No Fury

For a few days this last week, Leah and I have been talking and getting along well. I was beginning to be quite hopeful about us again. I helped her with some essays she was writing and we spoke on the phone and we laughed and all was lovely. She even announced that she was planning on coming to London for a few days this week just as I had said that I would go in the opposite direction.

Then yesterday, once I had completed her essays for her, Leah suddenly turned on me again. Though she was planning on coming here, she told me she had no intention of seeing me. My heart sank. Still bearing the scars from our recent past, it would seem that Leah is in no mood to forgive even if she is quite willing to be nice to me long enough to do her a favour.

Of course I ought to be furious about this. She used me. She even denied that this was what she was doing when I asked her. Now she is advertising her forthcoming trip and the fact that she will be spending it in the company of a male friend. She is putting in the knife and now twisting it.

Of course hell hath no fury like a woman scorned as we all know. I admit to having scorned her, albeit having done so without intent. It would seem that she is never going to forgive or forget however much I apologise, whatever I do to make amends. She is taking great delight in telling me about this and very much with intent. She is revelling in my disappointment. She is enjoying hurting me.

Yet I still love her. I'm not even angry. I'm sad and disappointed and miserable. I still harbour the hope that she will relent and that we can meet. I know that if we did all of our problems would be behind us. Maybe that is what Leah is afraid of. Maybe she is unwilling to relent for fear that she will let me back into her heart and risk being hurt again. This time she is the one doing the hurting. I must be made to suffer as she once did.

And so I shall suffer. I admit to my past wrongdoing and so I shall pay the price. I shall wait by the phone this week just in case and hope that the Leah I know and love is still in there somewhere, that when she is so close to me she will want to get a little bit or a lot closer. Deep down I think she wants that too. But has she buried it too deep? We'll soon find out.

No Brainer

As recommended here weeks ago, the British government is now to reverse its policy and start using Northern Rock as a means of putting billions more back into the British economy in mortgages. I'll look forward to receiving my advisory fee and cash bonus in the post.

As usual the government is being dragged kicking and screaming into admitting that its policies are not working and that either the same again is required or a complete reversal of what has gone before. Northern Rock is a functioning, albeit small bank in government hands. It can be told to put money into the economy in a way that the others cannot. It can be given that money safe in the knowledge that it will not be eaten up paying for previous bad decisions or bonuses. This is a no brainer. So why did it take all of the well rewarded brains in Whitehall so long to come to the same conclusion?

This constant game of catch up is part of the reason that confidence is shot. Instead of thinking things through strategically Brown makes knee jerk decisions with one eye on the polls and trying to engineer a chance for a snap election. In so doing he just makes matters worse and his poll ratings dive along with confidence and the economy.

As also recommended here, he ought to have nationalised RBS and broken it up into its various constituent and in many cases very profitable parts which it will then be able to sell in the future. It would thus be able to point to this future remedy when the markets worry about the amount of debt being taken on. In RBS he would also have had a much larger and ready made bank in his control that he could have used to get lending out into the economy. Instead he has a bank that is largely owned by the taxpayer and yet is still behaving independently and even argues like a truculent teenager about paying ill deserved bonuses.

What else was recommended here just a few weeks ago? Before the takeover of HBOS by Lloyds, I argued that it was not too late to pull the plug on that deal if it looked too risky. Again HBOS could have been nationalised, broken up but used in the meantime as a conduit for funds. Another opportunity missed, this time for reasons of Scottish politics. Another case of Brown thinking about politics instead of about saving the world as he constantly claims to be doing.

If the government would like my advice then they need only call. Would they listen however? Tomorrow it seems we are going to see more announcements about mega cash injections, more borrowing on a terrifying scale as Brown prepares to grandstand in Washington and then at his cherished G20 meeting in London. The man genuinely believes that this talking shop is going to be his salvation, that he will be seen as the steady hand on the tiller, the man who is saving the world. He genuinely believes that they will be able to agree to a new supra national regulation structure to shut the door after the horse has bolted.

Similarly the same government that is splurging billions, printing money and running up catastrophic levels of debt is letting it be known that they want to see banking go back to its traditional conservative (presumably with a small C) roots. No more 100% mortgages says Brown as he prepares to go on his next spending spree as a desperate gamble to salvage his career and reputation. It is hard to know whether to laugh or cry. The man who once claimed to be prudent is urging it on others. As he seems so intent on mirroring the career of John Major, perhaps this is his back to basics moment.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Inexpert Expert

I wrote last week that I might start introducing the occasional review element to this blog as and when I see fit. I forgot however that, in order to become a critic, one apparently has to join some kind of union or to have some other form of qualification to do so. I assumed it was just one person's opinion. It seems I was wrong.

AA Gill of The Sunday Times is a some time hack who has somehow been elevated to the role of critic thanks to his undoubted ability to turn a phrase. He is a one time manager of a restaurant and so this apparently qualifies him to be a restaurant critic. He also watches television and so this is all the qualification one needs for being that most pointless of newspaper columnists, the TV critic who opines on the programmes we have either already watched or have already missed.

Today Gill is getting all precious about criticism. It is apparently not something that anyone with an opinion can do. It requires something more. He has written a coruscating review of Jeremy Paxman's new BBC1 series The Victorians, alleging that Paxman has no eye for his subject matter and is "utterly, gormlessly out of his depth".

Do I detect a little professional jealousy here? Does Mr Gill secretly hanker to get on to the goggle box? Does he think he might make a better fist of a prime time BBC1 programme and become the star he clearly thinks he is? Is he an expert awaiting an audience?

It would be easier to take Gill's views more seriously if he had any real expertise. One cannot of course be expert about television content. One man's pearl is another's piece of grit. Gill does however give the game away when he tries to critique the technical elements of TV shows and betrays the fact that he very clearly has no understanding of how it is made. He confuses camerawork with cinematography. He clearly has no idea what the director does. Similarly editing is a mystery to him and yet this does not stop him criticising it.

"The editing" Gill informs us, "tried to keep up, but was apparently performed by an infuriated draper with pinking shears".

You see, this is a lovely sentence. Gill is a fine writer. But he has no clue about what he writes. This lovely and amusing sentence betrays his ignorance of how films and television are contructed. They are created in the cutting room. Gill uses nice generic phrases in an attempt to convince us of his expertise but in so doing betrays the fact that he has none. That he then attacks the show's writer and presenter as being too ignorant to do justice to his subject matter is beyond parody.

If Mr Gill wishes I will be glad to provide him with some real examples of bad editing so that he can he see what it means. There are many examples across television and of course on the internet. One only has to watch some of the repeats of American sitcoms shown on various digital channels and edited for content to make them suitable for a pre-watershed audience to see some particularly egregious examples. But there are many films with poorly contructed scenes and horrible cuts which could well have been made with pinking shears. Perhaps Mr Gill should ask to spend a day on a set or in a cutting room so that he could write on an informed basis for a change. Either that or he could stick to merely appraising the content, something for which no expertise is required.

How does one become a television critic? Is it thanks to a lifetime's devotion to the art form? Do television critics work in the industry and then decide to disseminate their expertise and love of it to the wider world? Of course not. Television critics are columnists who are invited one day by their editor to have crack at writing about tele. As such they are no different to you or I, the average viewer, except they will inevitably bring to the job a more jaundiced eye. It is a sad fact of life that praise never sells so well as derision. The role of the TV critic is more often than not to tell us why we were lucky not to see a show. Often they will then pretend they said the opposite when a show becomes popular. Some of the biggest all time hits in television were slated by the critics when first seen.

AA Gill is one of the better exemplars of the form because he is at least an entertaining read. But there are many better. Charlie Brooker of The Guardian for instance actually seems to like television. He is just as witty and clever but actually understands what he is talking about because he, no doubt to the chagrin of Gill, works in TV and makes a critically acclaimed and popular show himself.

Gill on the other hand is just a bitter wannabe looking in resentfully. The fact that he is almost always wrong and doesn't understand how the shows are put together merely invalidates much of what he says and means that the industry is probably right to ignore him.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Real Heroes

As we watch or, in my case, try not to watch the tacky spectacle that is the wedding of Jade Goody to a convicted criminal this weekend, contrast and compare someone else in the public eye who is also 'battling cancer' as the tabloids would describe it.

Sir Bobby Robson, former England football manager and true national treasure, is also losing that battle. He is fighting it for the fourth and, his doctors say, last time. He has done so with stoicism, dignity and good humour despite having to undergo various operations which have removed parts of his face and mouth and left him partially paralysed. Sir Bobby is also on a quest for publicity and to raise as much cash as he can. The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation however is seeking to raise money for various cancer related projects. I wonder how much of the money raised from tv and magazine deals the newly venerated Ms Goody will be donating.

As Sir Bobby said as he opened the new facilities he has helped to fund, cancer is an horrific disease. But there are plenty of people who face it with stoicism and real dignity, normal people, people who cannot sell their stories to raise funds for their families left behind, people who try to struggle on with work for as long as possible because they have no choice. I know, my Dad was one of them.

Perhaps this is why I am irritated by the circus surrounding Jade Goody and the references to her alleged dignity. I see nothing dignified about this farrago. This weekend the real heroes are going about their business whilst 'battling cancer'. They might be in hospices taking a cocktail of drugs to ease the pain. They might be confronting their own mortality as a doctor informs them that there is nothing left for them but facing the inevitable. They might be putting their lives in order and doing their best for their families without media cheques to cushion the blow. There is real heroism all across the country this weekend and there won't be a camera crew in sight to record it.

Time for a Novice

Gordon Brown is to meet President Obama next month. The president will welcome the prime minister on 3rd March. The White House has even trotted out the usual line, designed more for British ears than their own electorate's, that the U.S and UK have a 'special partnership'. One wonders if Downing Street asked specifically for this to be included.

Brown of course will he hoping that some of that Obama charisma and popularity reflects over to him. He'll be hoping to look statesmanlike, a serious man talking to the new kid on the block. Maybe he has visions of himself as being a modern version of Harold Macmillan who famously had a surprisingly convivial relationship with JFK.

Of course there is another possibility. Standing next to Obama, Brown may well look dour, grey, old, overweight and fusty. Last year he told us that this was no time for a novice. Now he is heading off to Washington and hoping that standing next to and shaking hands with a novice will make him look less hopeless, hapless, clueless and doomed than he currently appears. Other world leaders such as Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy have already felt able to be slyly critical of our Prime Minister and his policies. Brown must hope that the novice in the White House remains diplomatic. It's unlikely he'll be willing to be patronised by the man who thinks he is saving the world.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Macabre Nuptials

In a world in which Britain has a deficit in the trillions, Saab and possibly the Ukraine are about to go bankrupt, car production has fallen by over 50% and house repossessions are at record rates, the British press will this weekend instead be focusing on the imminent nuptials of a 20 something woman made famous because she is a moron and a racist. She is now being elevated to a kind of secular sainthood because she has terminal cancer.

I am not going to join this circus. I have always been contemptuous of Jade Goody. I consider her to be a lowlife. It is of course sad and tragic that she has cancer and that she will be leaving behind her young children. I wouldn't wish that upon my worst enemy. But what is happening this weekend is prurience and nothing more. The media can dress it up as raising awareness of cancer or even just giving the public what it wants. But there is nothing dignified about what is happening. A woman who knows nothing but playing to the crowd, of being a 'celebrity' without ever having done anything to deserve it has suddenly happened upon something that is uniquely fascinating - death.

This woman who was being reviled just a few months ago as a foul mouthed bigot, upon discovering that she has cancer is now some kind of heroine. Why? Some in the media have compared her to others who have written movingly about their plight as they face death and wondered aloud why Jade Goody should not be allowed to do the same. The answer is simple: the likes of John Diamond were articulate and able to explain their feelings. Goody is, by her own admission, thick. She can gurn for the cameras and milk the sympathy. She can be redeemed for past misdemeanours thanks to the fickle finger of fate. But we will learn nothing from her experience other than that the public has an insatiable appetite for staring goggle eyed at ghoulish freak shows.

This will be a death for the Jerry Springer tendency. I don't really blame Ms Goody for raking in the cash. It's all she knows. It seems to validate her. But I judge those who will be watching it and treating it as entertainment. I won't be one of them.

Short Sighted

Yesterday, as part of the recurring theme of "political correctness gone mad", several newspapers criticised the BBC for insisting that their television newsreaders did not merely refer to BBC URLs on screen but actually read them out. This was to save offending blind or visually impaired viewers we are told by using the phrase "as you can see".

Stop sniggering at the back. This is serious.

The blind and visually impaired use television services a great deal we are told. The BBC has to include them.

This does raise an interesting question. I'm sure it is true that blind people do 'use' television news. But if we are to take this to its logical conclusion should reporters stop using phrases like 'as you can see behind me?' Should television news abandon its use of graphics and illustrations for fear that it is discourteous to those who cannot see them? And here's the clincher. If the blind or visually impaired using television news cannot read a URL on screen meaning that they must have it read out to them, then what use is a URL for a website going to be to them anyway? Is the BBC going to send someone round to read it to them?

I wonder if this new BBC policy came about because 'viewers' had complained or whether it was just someone taking it upon themselves to be offended on their behalf. Presumably people who are blind or visually impaired sit down in front of their television fully cognizant of the fact that they are unlikely to get the same value from the experience as those who have normal vision. It goes with the territory. Television is a visual medium after all. The clue is in the name. Writers for television and movies are constantly reminded that it is a visual medium and that they should write accordingly. It is most unlikely that the visually impaired are offended by this.

People of a liberal sensibility do get themselves tied up in knots when they try, for the best of motives, to be inclusive and caring and sensitive to others. They tend not to think things through properly.

It's similar to the sort of idiots who imagine that those from a different cultural background would be offended by Christmas and so decide to call it Winterval instead. Why do they imagine Muslims or Hindus would be offended? Are they offended by Ramadan or Diwali? Of course not. So why do they imagine that other religions would be offended by other festivals? Are they saying that people from other religious backgrounds are less tolerant? Surely that would be racist?

But perhaps this is why I don't work for the BBC so often any more. Perhaps I need to become more politically correct and to start reading The Guardian. I note that on the BBC editors' blog, Peter Horrocks, the BBC editor who passed this edict to staff, refers to several newspapers and provides a link. The link is to The Guardian website. I know what I have to do.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Death Spiral

British government debt is out of control and set to get worse. The figures become more terrifying as each week goes by. January should be one of the months that sees the Inland Revenue raking in money and yet the figures are down by an eye watering amount. It is no wonder the Chancellor has put back the date of the next budget to so much later in April. They are clearly struggling to make the figures add up. They are clearly struggling to put that now traditional Labour spin on the figures to make them look a little less dire than they really are. In November they did this by being absurdly optimistic about growth prospects for the second half of this year. Even then the figures produced audible gasps in the House of Commons. They can't do that now. Everyone knows that this recession is set to last for the whole year and well into next. The implications for borrowing are terrifying.

The trouble for the government is that all of this extra borrowing is on top of persistent deficits during what were supposed to be the good years. It would seem that because Gordon thought he had abolished boom and bust he felt it unnecessary to prepare for the latter. He also felt able to splurge money every which way in a manner never seen before and unlikely ever to be seen again for at least a generation because the next two generations are going to have to pay for this one. As of this year, Brown is spending £219 billion more per annum than he would have done had spending increased in line with inflation. That is a level of irresponsibility which makes those reckless British bankers look like models of fiscal rectitude.

The question is where the hell has all of this money gone? Does this feel like a country that is spending more than double on public services than it was 12 years ago? Only today it was revealed that British rail fares are more expensive than anywhere else in Europe and it is government policy for those fares to keep rising to pay for additional investment.

It is a story that is repeated across all of the public services. Defence spending is being cut but the army has been sent to fight in two separate wars one of which is likely to be a commitment that will endure for a decade or more. Billions have been spent on building new school facilities and yet education in this country has demonstrably been dumbed down, so much so that many schools are now trying to find alternatives to GCSEs and A Levels which no longer allow employers and universities to effectively select the brightest and most able students.

The NHS has improved it is true but it remains hugely bureaucratic and wasteful. I have experienced this myself. I was very nearly crippled waiting to be seen by a specialist as I was passed from one agency to the next. Once I was admitted to hospital (as an emergency) my treatment was superb. Once out again however I had to try again to get past the legions of bureaucrats to get after care. Even now I shall have to make several calls chasing up physiotherapy and scans because they have fallen through the cracks. Brown has thrown billions at the NHS but a huge proportion of that has been wasted on a Kafkaeseque system which merely perpetuates and exacerbates waste.

And now we will have to have cuts in everything. As usual those cuts will come, not in the legions of unproductive civil servants but in frontline services. The next government will have to make deep cuts much as the Thatcher administration had to in the early 80s in response to the mess left behind by another incompetent Labour administration. Such cuts will be deeply unpopular however necessary they may be. In some ways we ought to keep Brown in power so that he has to endure the pain and try to explain it away. The trouble is that he is in such deep denial about all of this that he would probably refuse to make those cuts and imagine that he can spend his way back to prosperity much as he did when he cut VAT back in November.

The picture just keeps getting worse and yet we have another 15 months before an election. How bad will things be by then? Will anyone want to win it?

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Home Lucrative Home

What makes a home a home? Well, if you are Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, it would seem to come down, not to where your husband and children are, not where you spend Christmas, not where you can kick off your shoes and sit with your feet up feeling secure and safe and comfortable. In Ms Smith's case it all comes down to money. Much better to designate the nice, comfortable place where your family lives as your second home so that you can make a tidy sum claiming allowances out of the taxpayer.

Jacqui Smith is the MP for Redditch to the south east of Birmingham. She has a large house there wherein live her husband and children and where she sometimes resides too when she is not in London carrying out her functions as MP and Cabinet Minister. When in London she rents a room from her sister. Just a room. This, for convenience's sake, she has designated as her 'main home' thus enabling her to claim £24,000 allowance on her 'second home' in Redditch.

This is so clearly a fiddle, so clearly a case of someone manipulating the rules to make extra money one can scarcely believe that she would have the temerity to deny it. Yet deny it she does. She has broken no rules, she claims. She made the authorities aware of her situation, she adds. It doesn't occur to her that the public can see what is really going on and can see that it stinks. It doesn't occur to her that as an MP and Cabinet Minister earning a six figure salary her underhand and dishonest attempt to further feather her own nest is plain wrong and proves her to be unfit to do her job. This is the woman charged with upholding law and order in the country. Yet she is doing something which is tantamount to fraud. How is she any different to someone who makes a false claim on their home insurance for instance?

Actually the rules are pretty clear cut and in no sense exonerate the Home Secretary. They state that in most cases it will be obvious which is the main home of an MP. And this is clearly the case here. One is a home she shares with her husband and family and the other a room she rents from her sister when in London. There really is no confusion.

Redditch is only about 90 miles from London. It's an area I know well. The connections to this part of the country are excellent. It is actually perfectly possible to commute to London on a daily basis. I know, I've done it. If you are an MP and a Cabinet Minister entitled to a chauffeur driven car and various other allowances to fund travel expenses it is a doddle.

But staying in London some nights is also a perfectly reasonable and economical thing to do if you are busy and working long hours. Again this is something I used to do myself, staying with a girlfriend or sometimes in a hotel or B & B. What is not reasonable is claiming that this temporary arrangement is anything more than that so as to claim the maximum amount of cash.

It is precisely this kind of dishonesty and malpractice which gets politics a bad name. Yet, as usual, this will be investigated and a slap on the wrist will be handed down. Our system is corrupt and corrupting because MPs and ministers are setting their own rules and then judging whether or not they are being broken. Oppositions make all kinds of noise about it and then leave it intact when they get into government. It is time to reform the whole system, our whole constitution, the relationship between Parliament and executive and legislative process. It is broken beyond repair. The usual remedy of inquiries and piecemeal reforms to silence the latest media outrage when another loophole emerges simply will not do.

Quantitative Easing Equals Disaster

What should our reaction be to the prospect of Quantitative Easing which is set to commence imminently? The general reaction may well be one of bafflement followed by a shrug of the shoulders. It's this kind of opaque language which turns so many people off economics as a subject. But maybe that opaqueness is deliberate.

Quantitative easing is the sort of concept that economists get excited about. They probably hug themselves at the very thought. Now, given the state of the economy and what they fear might be about to happen, the Bank of England, with permission from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is going to start creating money out of nowhere in the hope that this kickstarts things and saves us from disaster. That's the theory. It's untested, desperate and dangerous. It is an admission that the economy has spiralled out of control and that there is little else that they can do. It's an admission that the British government cannot go on a vast spending splurge copying the Obama plan because we simply cannot afford it. This despite the fact that Gordon Brown has again urged the world to do precisely that. So, instead of borrowing vast amounts of money, they are simply going to create it out of nowhere.

The risk is that this puts even more pressure on the already suffering Pound. The risk is that this simply stores up inflation making the recovery even more difficult. The risk is that, once that recovery gets under way, inflation kicks in forcing the bank to raise interest rates thus choking off those elusive green shoots. It would be like going back to the 1970s again. It would be a return to boom and bust but with a lot more bust than boom.

Economists around the world, with very few exceptions, have not covered themselves in glory over the last few months. We are in a crisis that hardly any of them saw coming, that they underplayed when it started to appear and that has made them look like amateurs. Their predictions of just a few weeks ago at the start of the year about the extent of this recession already look hopeless. Yet their theories about remedies are taken up unquestioningly.

Quantitative easing is a disaster waiting to happen. Yet it seems to be a fait accompli. Banks and governments are throwing their entire arsenals at this recession and it is having no effect. Now they are dreaming up entirely new and untried weapons. The only time QE has been tried was in Japan and, as usual, there is no agreement upon whether it worked.

Why is it even called quantitative easing? Is it because they don't want to call it printing money? Is it because they want to spin it as something more sophisticated? No printing presses are involved of course but that is just because money can be moved around and created at the press of a computer button. That ease is what makes this so dangerous and so tempting to a government running out of options thanks to their own fiscal folly and facing an election in a matter of months.

If things really are so desperate as to require such measures we ought to be demanding the resignation of this prime minister and an immediate election. He and his government have already presided over the near collapse of our banking system thanks to a system of regulation that he set up. He, as Chancellor, whilst boasting of his prudence, managed to run a fiscal deficit throughout the boom years meaning that the coffers are now empty. Now we are facing huge borrowing, rising taxes, savage cuts in public spending and a run on the Pound. The credit ratings agencies are keeping an eye on Britain and threatening to downgrade our credit status. Britain has never defaulted on its debt. Now the world is watching and considers this a distinct possibility.

This bankrupt and hapless Prime Minister is leading us down a path which we will take decades to recover from. Yet he is unelected. We should be marching in the streets and demanding he stands down or calls an election. The road he is taking us down is increasingly disastrous. We have a right to be consulted before he proceeds any further.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

No Saying No

The government is to allow RBS to pay out £175 million in bonuses. The bulk of this will still go to the usual suspects and as such is simply unacceptable. RBS management should have been told that they were effectively bankrupt and that under the new ownership arrangements former commitments to city fat cats were null and void. Those demanding their bonuses could try and sue if they wished but in so doing would have had to run the gauntlet of public ordure which would inevitably and deservedly have come their way.

Why does this government have to make everything so complicated? They could and should have sorted this out last year when they were handing over our billions. The moment that they took a 70% stake in RBS the game changed. RBS was an organisation that, by virtue of its size and its importance, could not be allowed to fail. But this is not to say that it could be allowed to carry on regardless.

Why does this government, which thinks nothing of curtailing ancient civil liberties, spying on people and endlessly nagging us about all kinds of aspects of our lives from sex to food to raising children, fight shy of telling a few greedy bastards that no they cannot help themselves to money given to them to stop them going out of business? It's really very simple. It simply requires them to be brave, decisive and steadfast for a change.

The Next Shock

So, President Obama has his stimulus package. The speed with which it has been done has certainly been admirable. But it is hard to see this doing the trick. Like everyone else, the Obama administration doesn't really know quite what to do about this crisis other than the standard responses of monetary, fiscal stimulus and even 'unconventional policies' already being tried. They have shovelled huge amounts of cash into the economy, pressed a few fiscal buttons and a few others labelled infrastructure. They are also printing money or are about to. They have more bank bailouts in the offing too, although they are not entirely sure how that is all going to work.

This is not to lay any blame. Everyone is making this up as they go along. It might all work but it is hard to see how even a package this huge can make up for the headlong crash we are seeing across the world economy. At best this package may cushion the blow. It will ease the symptoms rather than cure the disease. The fear is though that as the downward spiral continues, as more and more money is shovelled in, companies and banks will have to keep coming back for more as bad debts mount. That will certainly be the case with car manufacturers and with our more troubled banks. Nationalisation is looking inevitable in certain cases and should have been done weeks ago with the likes of RBS as I argued here.

Furthermore this problem is being caused by an absence of credit. This is why the government here and others around the world should either be nationalising those banks who cannot lend or bypassing them completely and lending directly. In Britain this could be accomplished by lending through the already nationalised Northern Rock. Had they not forced HBOS into the hands of Lloyds (something I also argued against just last month) they could have nationalised that too and used that larger bank as a means of getting credit out into the economy.

The more that companies cannot get credit and so fail in increasing numbers the worse the situation gets and the worse bank losses become and the less likely they are to lend. And all the time the worry is that something else is just around the corner which will cause more panic and destabilise further markets that are permanently nervous and just looking for the next bad news to go on another selling binge. It happened last Friday when Lloyds announced its new debt figures. It has happened today as the markets digested details of the Obama plan and concluded it was not enough. What happens if we get another and bigger shock?

That next shock may come here in Europe. There are all kinds of problems in Eastern Europe and Russia as those economies struggle to cope. Large parts of the formerly prosperous Western Europe are in trouble too. Could Ireland default on its debt? If they do will others follow? Will one or two leave the Euro? Could even Germany leave it so as to avoid being asked to bail out other members? Will countries forget formerly lofty ideals and ignore the pleas of help from desperate neighbours and fellow EU members? It may sound far fetched but then so many aspects of this credit crunch would have been unimaginable this time last year. The fact is that in this frenzy of fear people are asking these sort of questions. The likes of Ireland, Spain, Italy etc are having to pay a premium to sell their debt. Something somewhere will have to give if the pressure doesn't relent and for now there is no sign of that happening.

The world is looking to America to drag us out of this mess. The Obama package is unlikely to do that and confidence has taken a fresh hit today as a consequence. There is another accident out there just waiting to happen and it could happen imminently.

Lily Allen

I haven't mentioned it before but I just love Lily Allen. I don't mean that I love her in the way I love Leah of course (although I do seem to have a penchant for girls whose name begins with L) but I think she's great. She's pretty of course, she's talented, she's level headed, witty, clever and nicely self deprecating. And most of all she's normal. Like many women her age, she is up for a good time. She drinks too much from time to time, she's wonderfully outspoken, she doesn't seem to worry too much about her image and yet at the same time is fabulously neurotic about herself and her career.

Oh and I think she writes some catchy, witty and clever songs. She is one of those artists who appeal across the generations. At first sight her music would seem to be aimed at teens and twenty something girls. But that would do her a grave disservice. A song like Smile for instance is a great pop record and yet at the same time resonates with people across the generations because most of us have felt that way. She has many imitators, the execrable Kate Nash being one, but none of them have her wit and charm.

But perhaps what is best of all about Lily is that she keeps getting into spats with people and tells them what she thinks of them. Today she has been doing the same to that fat, talentless waste of space Perez Hilton. What is the point of Perez Hilton?

Apparently he was persuading his 'followers' on Twitter (who in their right mind follows the inane ramblings of this nobody?) to campaign for the divine Lily to feature him in her next video. Lily, to her eternal credit, not so politely declined. There then followed a short exchange of insults during which Lily rightly defined him as a parasite and the witless Perez made various bitchy remarks which basically proved that she is right about him and that he is a jealous nobody who tries to hang on the coat tails of those who are actually famous for a reason.

Marvellous stuff. I have so far resisted the lure of Twitter, but this sounds quite entertaining and diverting. Bringing the ludicrous Perez down a peg or two and exposing him to be the waster he truly is might be worth joining for. Then again Lily Allen probably doesn't need our help.

I was going to go and buy her new album (she is currently number one in both the singles and album chart) anyway this week. Now I'm definitely going to do so. I may take a trip to the shops this very afternoon.

Selective Democracy

Just as with the power sharing agreement in Zimbabwe, Hugo Chavez's victory in the Venezuelan vote to amend the constitution will be greeted around the world with weary resignation. We suspect that we know what is going to happen, however fervently we hope that we are wrong. The first call of congratulations to Chavez was from Fidel Castro which is as symbolic as any phone call could ever be.

Now Chavez has free rein to stand again for the election in 2012. Like so many who claim to be democrats, not least our own dear leaders in the EU, Chavez was never going to take no for an answer after his defeat in a similar vote in 2007. He was determined to have this inconvenient constitution amended in his favour. He had to ask twice before he got what he wanted and would probably have asked a third time if necessary. Now he claims that, 'for the good of his people', he is prepared to go on and on, until 2049 if possible.

One cannot help but fear for the worst. Chavez has bought popularity with enough of the electorate as was necessary to remain in power. Now he has persuaded them to enable him to put the machinery in place to ensure he never has to move out of the presidential palace.

He may have done so just in time. His largesse will have to be considerably more restrained with the oil price as low as it is and oil is all that the country has going for it. His running of the economy, like Putin's in Russia, was lauded when the oil riches were flooding in. The harsh realities of a prolonged worldwide recession/depression with all that that means for oil prices will mean he has to rely much more on his bluster and maybe other more questionable methods as we have seen so often in various parts of South America.

When that election comes around in 2012, will the electorate be quite so starry eyed about their leader and his promise to serve them for another 40 years? If they are not will he listen? History and experience suggests otherwise however much we hope that we are wrong.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Chipping Away at Freedom

For a while now police around the country have been using the excuse of terrorism to harass photographers, both professional and amateur, who are taking pictures in public places. This is particularly the case when pictures are taken of the police in action. Photographers have been arrested, had cameras snatched out of their hands and been carted off to police stations and held for several hours merely for pointing a camera at a police officer. The police had no right to do this of course. There is no law preventing people in public places from taking photographs.

Or at least that was the case. From today such a law does indeed exist, at least potentially. In the usual manner of this government, this law has been sneaked in as a clause in the Counter Terrorism Act and nodded through as usual by our spectacularly supine and useless MPs. The language of the conveniently vague section 76 tries to proscribe the act of "eliciting, publishing or communicating information on members of the armed forces, intelligence services and police officers which is likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism".

As usual the government has acted upon the recommendations of the police without questioning their motives. As with 42 day detention, ID cards, innumerable new criminal offences and a variety of anti terrorism offences, they have taken the word of the police and intelligence services and given them precisely what they want without bothering to ask whether such provisions are desirable or indeed conducive to a free and democratic society. And anti terrorism laws are a convenient way to sneak all kinds of oppressive policies through. This is the government after all that, in the wake of the collapse of Icelandic banks last year, used anti terror legislation to freeze their assets. I for one find that sinister and terrifying.

Of course police officers don't want members of the public and especially journalists taking photographs of them when going about their duties. But they are public servants. They are accountable to the public, or at least they should be. Yet the vague wording of this section can and will be used, just as previous anti terrorism legislation has been, as a way of demanding the public cease taking pictures or delete those already taken. Police officers have been doing this already, arresting people only to then release them without charge hours later having put fear into that innocent and blameless citizen and no doubt conveniently deleted those pictures.

It is to be hoped that photographers refuse to be cowed by such aggression and blatant attempts to create a new rule protecting the police. Even under this legislation police have no right to demand that photographers delete pictures or cease taking them at all. Only the courts can do that. Will the police prosecute? How will the courts interpret this section? What will they regard as being 'likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism'? That could mean anything or nothing. How can the average member of the public be expected to judge what is or is not likely to do so?

It is to be hoped that such cases never make it to court and, if they do, the courts throw them out. But it ought to be tested and as soon as possible. Further, if the police try to use this legislation to intimidate people and delete pictures then photographers should sue so that we can get some clarity from the courts.

The police are unlikely to pick on the masses of photographers who have today gone down to Scotland Yard to protest en masse with their cameras. What they will do is pick on photographers individually and intimidate them just as they have been for the last few years under cover of combating terrorism. We must not allow them to do so. I've a good mind to go out with my camera tomorrow and take a few pictures to see what reaction I get. Then again there are so few police on the beat these days I might have my work cut out.

21st Century Simpsons

You can't stop progress, even when you are an icon. The Simpsons have finally bowed to it and entered the high definition era. In so doing they have also changed those opening titles we all know and love. Take a look here.

I rather like them and I am not generally known for my easy acceptance and embrace of change. But this is an evolution and a logical and sensible one. Characters have been added, it has been made more sophisticated and they have made them funnier. But it's still recognisably The Simpsons as it should be.

Hypocrisy a Mile High

There has been much comment these last few days about the latest antics of our idiot prince, or rather our idiot prince in chief because they have all been guilty of varying levels of idiocy in recent times. Yet Prince Charles is off on an eco tour. It's the sort of eco tour that only our dimwit heir to the throne could embark on a) because only he can afford it b) because only he could justify it to himself and c) because, being who he is in our alleged democracy, he doesn't have to justify it to anyone else.

Yes the idiot prince is off to see the damage allegedly being done to the world thanks to global warming. He is doing so on a private jet and taking various cronies and assorted servants along with him on a 16,400 mile trip around South America. The hypocrisy is astounding of course but then this is a man who very much believes that people should do as he says rather than what he does. He ensures this by having such a cosseted and sybaritic lifestyle that few of us could ever aspire to it. Frankly I have never really minded cooking my own meals and running my own bath. I may not believe in all of this global warming hysteria but I lead an inordinately more green lifestyle than the idiot prince could ever do. But then the same is true of most people on the planet with the possible exception of the President of the United States who is, to be fair, actually running a country and one or two other monarchs and dictators who are even more deluded than our next head of state.

Given this though what does the idiot prince hope to achieve with his tour? He is not a politician. He is not in a position to do anything about global warming even if he actually learns anything by flying over a rainforest or two. He can write letters, he can give speeches. But how seriously are ordinary members of the public or elected politicians going to take his words when he has no expertise whatsoever and when his lifestyle creates more carbon than the sort of housing estate he visits in limousines in order to cut a ribbon and patronise a few local worthies?

Here's a tip your royal flying highness, if you had spent the £300,000 this pointless trip has cost on something like paying South Americans not to cut down trees it would actually make a difference. Posturing from several thousand feet up and mumbling about it afterwards just puts people's backs up.

Sunday, 15 February 2009


I'm thinking of adding a review element to this blog. I thought that, from time to time, I might give my considered opinion on films, theatre, music and anything else that takes my fancy. I have written occasionally about TV shows of course. But now I might expand my remit.

I did once review a film for a radio station I was working for. Sadly it was a one off. But it was an experience I enjoyed, made all the better by the fact that it was a decent film. It was Talk Radio, an oft forgotten part of the Oliver Stone oeuvre. Quite why the film is now largely overlooked I have no idea. Not only was it directed by Stone but it starred Eric Bogosian and Alec Baldwin. It isn't an action packed movie it's true. But I remember being pretty impressed by it at the time. Maybe I'll get a copy of the DVD and see if agree with the younger me. It is quite a few years ago.

Speaking of reviews, I shall have to decide whether or not to award films a star rating, or sometimes a rating according to its content. I doubt that I shall be doing so. But far more august publications than this blog do. The New York Times for one. In one recent review for the film The International, they gave an R rating because "It has some swearing and a narrative that may undermine the faith of children in the global financial system". Now that is very very funny. When I get around to reviewing something, anything, that is what I shall aspire to.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

No Valentines

Take a look at that picture of me just to the left. Would you believe that that handsome, bronzed man about town has never in his life received a Valentine's card? I know, amazing isn't it. Not one card has ever been sent. I've sent plenty, flowers too but I have never had one in return in all of my 43 years.

I don't have much luck in the romance stakes. I always seem to fall for the wrong woman. By this I mean that I have had a tendency to fall for women who either don't feel the same way about me or with whom there is some kind of problem or obstacle.

Currently of course my obstacle is the Atlantic Ocean and my lack of cash flow. I met the most beautiful woman in the world, I fell for her, she for once fell for me too but circumstances dictated that I was unable to consummate my feelings. Thus she moved on, albeit regretfully.

I wrote the other day about what Leah had told me about her moving on from me. After a day or so of depression I resolved to try again. I wrote to her about how much I loved and adored her. I wrote that I would go there and see her if she would only indicate that she was willing to give me chance. But she has not responded.

I didn't send her a card or flowers today. I thought long and hard about it but, given what she said the other day and her lack of response to my further outpourings, I didn't know if I should.

But perhaps this is my problem. I pride myself on my logic and reason. But love and romance has nothing to do with either. If logic were involved I would have admitted defeat over Leah months or even years ago. We have said goodbye to one another or told each other we would henceforth just be friends so many times only to start again days, weeks or months later. This time I lasted a matter of minutes.

Leah is the love of my life. I want her with me. I would even go and live over there if she wanted me to and I like living in England. But I would give up more or less anything for Leah. Leah is the only woman who has tempted me to be normal and conventional. I want to marry her and have children with her, things that have never appealed to me with any other woman.

I have of course told her all of this. But I think I may need to be more impulsive. I need to risk all and try to win her once and for all. She still has feelings for me. It wouldn't take much. We just need to give vent to all of that pent up passion we have for each other and make a commitment not to let that damned ocean get in the way anymore.

So I've decided to go. I have no idea where I'm getting the money from yet but there are ways and means. I shall be hitting the phone on Monday morning, chasing up people who owe me money, begging the bank for help, chasing up work and any number of other things I haven't yet thought of.

Valentine's Day is just a day. It is meaningless really. It's just another day in our commercialised world, a time when the world is drab and cold and Christmas is a distant memory and so we have this day as an excuse to spend money and lavish silly gifts on those we profess to love. I don't care if I never receive a card in my entire life. I just want to spend the rest of it with Leah.

Legislative Intervention

As part of the fiscal stimulus package approved by Congress this week, a provision was added which will restrict and even prohibit cash bonuses to top executives of all companies in receipt of state bailouts. This seems like a sensible move to all of us who inhabit the real world and who have to survice on old fashioned salaries.

There have been the usual claims of course that this will be counterproductive. Executives, we are told, will vote with their feet and find other bonus paying jobs. Companies will risk everything and pay back the debts they have accrued more quickly so that the old way of doing things can quickly be restored.

There are obvious rejoinders to these arguments: First if executives can find other better paying jobs in the current climate then so be it. That's the way markets are supposed to work. The amount of talent out there is nothing like as restricted as the vested interests allege. The talent that has been running these companies has proven to be a good deal less talented than was alleged. We should wave them cheerily on their way.

Second, if companies try to pay back the debts too quickly then regulators should be empowered to stop them. It is in the interests of taxpayers to have the money paid back as quickly as possible but it is not in their interests to have this done so quickly as to further jeopardise the future. If proper control is exercised then executives will be forced to repay their debts at a prudent and risk free rate.

It is entirely reasonable that governments with a stake in banks and other bailed out companies should exercise such controls. There is no excuse for them not to do so. Yet still the British government, for all of its tough talk, hesitates on this matter. They should have implemented controls on pay and bonuses last year when the bailouts were first discussed. It is incumbent upon them to do so now. Stop dithering and just do it. If necessary legislate. It is a simple case of natural justice and simple common sense that those who created this mess have no legitimate argument for maintaining their gilded and outrageous lifestyles at taxpayers' expense. What has been done in the U.S can easily be replicated here.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Changed Priorities

Earlier this week, a court decided that two children who had been removed from their parents on suspicion of abuse had probably not suffered abuse at all. But, since those children had now been adopted into another family, it was decided that the children should not be restored to their natural and blameless parents.

The reasoning behind this was statutory. The Children's Act 1989 states that the welfare of the child is paramount. This of course is open to interpretation. In this highly controversial case, the welfare of the child was deemed to be the status quo, albeit the court imposed status quo. As the children were now settled into their new home they should be left there the court decided. Though this was clearly against the interests of the parents, their interests were deemed to be secondary.

Today however, The Sun newspaper reports that a 15 year old schoolgirl has this week had a baby. This, sadly, is not that unusual. What is unusual is that the father is a 13 year old boy (he was 12 at the time of the conception) who looks considerably younger and whose voice has not yet broken. You can see the pictures and read the story here.

The nation has reacted to this with incredulity. Yet nobody in authority seems to be questioning whether these parents should be allowed to bring up the baby they conceived in a moment of stupidity and immaturity and with which they are ill prepared to cope either emotionally or financially. Yet again the taxpayer will pick up the bill and three lives will be either ruined or severely stymied because our society allows the feckless and stupid to make mistakes and leave others to pay.

Something is going wrong with our priorities. Only a few months ago we saw the horrendous spectacle of Karen Matthews and her huge family from multiple fathers all paid for on benefits. Yet nobody questions that this 15 year old mother should have her baby and be allowed to bring up that baby. Nobody from the authorities who will have to pick up the pieces asks questions. How many 15 year old girls date and sleep with boys three years younger than they are? Girls usually mature more quickly than boys so what was going on here? Take a look at the pictures and reach your own conclusions. Is this girl fit to raise a child? Should she not have to prove it before she is handed tens of thousands in benefits and we risk another baby being raised in a dysfunctional family? If the priorities of the child are paramount then why is this child being abandoned when all of the data, empirical studies and simple common sense suggest that they are heading for disaster?

This is not just about sex education. Arguably children nowadays know plenty about sex, probably too much. This is about a society that allows people to be irresponsible without any consequences. Those who have children who cannot afford them are being irresponsible and feckless. In the modern age there is no excuse for it. So let's stop excusing it.

Big Bad Bank

I have long been sceptical of the forced marriage between Lloyds TSB and the near bankrupt HBOS. It seemed odd when the government was talking about saving the banking system to force a merger between a good and well managed bank and one that had been reckless to the point of near extinction. We already had the gigantic RBS that was tottering on the edge of bankruptcy. Now another giant was being created for no very obvious reason.

Today, the newly named Lloyds Banking Group, revealed that, thanks to HBOS, it has a £10 billion blackhole in its accounts, a situation even worse than was thought when the takeover was first engineered. Now that Lloyds has had chance to take a proper look at the books and apply its own more exacting and rigorous standards to the numbers, it finds that HBOS was even more of a wreck than it had imagined. Those bankers who went before the Treasury Committee this week had even more to apologise for than we thought. Not only were they reckless, this looks like simple incompetence.

Banks tend to reveal losses during recessions and downturns. It goes with the territory. But what was happening at HBOS was scandalous. Now those losses are impacting on a previously robust and healthy bank.

What is more scandalous though is that this merger has hit savers and investors hard. Lloyds TSB was famous for paying a healthy and generous dividend. It was a popular share used as a source of income for small investors and pension funds alike. Now its share price has been decimated and that dividend is gone for the best part of a decade and even then only if it can continue to ward off nationalisation as this recession continues to worsen.

Why was this merger forced through? What has been achieved by it other than saving the government from having to nationalise two banks in quick succession. Shareholders and pension holders are paying a high price for saving Gordon Brown's blushes. This was and is a bad policy and a stupid decision made in haste. As usual it is not Gordon who will express any regrets for his folly.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

New Beginning?

Yesterday's inauguration of Morgan Tsvangirai as Zimbabwe's new Prime Minister is something that should be celebrated by all who want to see a resolution to that country's problems. But at the same time one cannot help but fear for the worst. The body language and spirit of the inauguration itself does not excite much optimism. Mugabe and Tsvangirai could barely look one another in the eye and the whole ceremony was performed grudgingly on the part of Zanu (PF) with army leaders conspicuous by their absence so that they would not have to salute their new half leader.

More importantly though, there are plenty of MDC members who remain imprisoned and possibly subject to torture despite Tsvangirai's attempts to have them released before he was willing to join the government. Has he been too willing to compromise in order to get into power? Will those compromises mean that his power is insufficient and mean that he is now a party to a failing state without the means to do anything about it?

Commendably Tsvangirai has not been so compliant in his appointments to the new government, many of which will provoke and infuriate Mugabe and his party but may mean that something can be achieved given access to the right levers and of course funding.

But funding is key here and western governments are naturally reluctant to hand over money to a government still largely controlled by the kleptocrats who have brought ruin to their country. Zanu is currently collecting 'donations' from various companies and individuals to enable them to celebrate Mugabe's 85th birthday with lobster and fine wines. This is the mindset of the ruling party in a nation that is starving and dying in large numbers of an easily preventable disease.

Yet Tsvangirai has already made a number of promises all of which will cost money, including paying the wages of the police in foreign currency. Has he been given access to funding that we do not know about? If so how does he plan to keep such money from getting into the hands of the voracious Mugabe and his client state?

History teaches us to be cautious with regard to Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai is gambling that by having some power rather than none he will be able to wield some influence, rebuild the nation to some extent to enable free and fair elections a few months down the line. In order to do so he is going to need money and a lot of it. Western governments will only be willing to provide it if they are confident that it will go where it is needed rather than on lobsters and new handbags for Mrs Mugabe. This new arrangement keeps Mugabe in power and his hand in the currently empty till. It is right that for now we remain reluctant to replenish it however fervently we wish that we could. Money should continue to be withheld unless and until a mechanism can be found enabling it to get to where it is needed and not diverted to the gangsters and crooks responsible for the mess.

Nanny Knows Best

The British government's nannyish tendencies have grown ever more oppressive the longer it has stayed in power. Barely a day goes by without some government edict advising or often compelling people to amend some aspect of their lives which, one might have thought, are nobody's business but their own. From alcohol consumption to the way we raise our children, nothing escapes the attention of various Whitehall departments who clearly do not have enough to do.

The irony is that, on issues such as drugs, something that government ought to take a lead on, they have downgraded their intrusion. The moment that they downgraded Cannabis it sent out a signal that its use was acceptable and harmless. Now the smell of this evil weed is common on high streets and public transport across the land, often being smoked by teenagers of school age.

A few years ago, during one of my periods of penury, I had a spell working as a bus driver. Barely a day went by without someone going on to the top deck of a bus, taking up residence on the fabled back seat and smoking a joint. Being of an assertive and intolerant nature, I always quickly put a stop to this for the sake of my own and my passengers' sanity and health. Frankly the stuff smells like excrement. I am unusual however in being so proactive. Most just grin and bear it.

But this encapsulates what is so wrong headed about government attitudes to all manner of issues. They are authoritarian where there is no need to be, banning hunting, banning smoking, locking people up without charge for 42 days, introducing thousands of new criminal offences, allowing all kinds of public bodies access to our information or to spy on us for petty reasons and introducing an ID card to the country for the first time since the war.

Yet on other issues they have been ridiculously liberal. Police are cautioning people instead of charging them to save money. Prisoners are being released early to ease overcrowding. Head teachers are unable to exclude children from schools no matter their behaviour. Social workers can give the benefit of the doubt to parents after visiting them dozens of times only to let children die as a consequence.

Now this week we get a swing back the other way. The Home Office is excluding a Dutch MP, Geert Wilders, from coming to this country to air his admittedly rather unpleasant and extreme views about Islam. Yet the British people apparently cannot be trusted to make up their own minds about this ranting xenophobe. It is always better to allow people to air their views and challenge them in debate rather than ban them. Banning things is almost always counterproductive. It just creates publicity for those we find objectionable rather than making them justify themselves.

Britain is a remarkably tolerant and open society. It has become that way by allowing free speech and democracy to reign rather than by handing down by diktat what is and is not acceptable. By seeking to silence those who rant about Islam the government is giving them the oxygen of publicity, publicity they would otherwise have been denied.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Lacking Expertise

You may recall that back at the beginning of the year, as part of my predictions for the year ahead, I said that the British economy would shrink by 4%. This was notably more pessimistic than most 'experts' were predicting. Given their recent record however, there is no good reason for giving their best guess more credence than mine.

It isn't as if I plucked the figure completely out of the air. I saw how the economy was contracting viciously, I looked at the figures for what had happened at the end of last year, I looked around me at what was happening, at the stores closing, the houses not selling and the rising unemployment and came to the conclusion that it was going to be much worse than the consensus.

Today, the Bank of England has come up with a figure that is broadly in line with my own. Indeed they say that it could even get worse. The economy could shrink by up to 6% we are now told. We are in, they say, a deep recession. Things are getting worse and all kinds of new measures, including printing money, may be necessary to save us falling off a cliff.

We of course knew all of this. I sometimes think that those of us who live in the real world, away from the bubble like world of the City of London, Whitehall and Westminster and maybe even Fleet Street, are better able to take the temperature, to sniff the air and see what is actually going on rather than concoct theories based on statistics. Maybe I just got lucky in my prediction. But to me it seemed obvious just six weeks ago that things were deteriorating fast and that this was going to be worse than the average V shaped recession everyone was expecting. The government is clearly burying its head in the sand and making predictions which are more like wishful thinking. Perhaps in private they too know how bad it really is.

Coming Back to Haunt

It keeps happening doesn't it. Gordon Brown, the man who persuaded so many that he could do no wrong, is a haunted man. He is being haunted by his own words and previous actions. It often happens when a party has been in power for a long time. In Brown's case though, unusually for this country, he has been either the second most powerful or the most powerful man in the country for nearly twelve years. Whenever things go wrong, and they seem to do little else these days, they can usually be traced back to him. It is no surprise that he is now plummeting in the polls. The only surprise is that it has taken so long and that it is not considerably worse.

It's all made worse for Brown of course because we are in the middle of the mother of all recessions. The man who ran the economy for ten years, the man who made various vainglorious claims about his stewardship of the economy, the man who claimed to be managing things prudently and, by sleight of hand, produced various slewed statistics to prove it, is now being found out in a way that even he cannot talk his way out of. He claimed to have abolished boom and bust, he claimed that he would borrow 'only to invest', he claimed that taxes were not rising, he claimed, even recently, that Britain was still the best prepared for the storm he said would never happen. Many of us were amazed that he could make such claims at the time. Now everyone can see them for what they are and this 'master strategist' for what he is.

Much of the reason that we are in the mess we are in is down to the banks of course, but they were allowed to behave in the way they did thanks to the lax regulatory system set up by Brown a decade ago. Today one of his appointments to the regulator, the FSA, has been forced to resign. Sir James Crosby has been a trusted adviser to the Prime Minister, has written two of the reports Brown uses to try and force his policies through and yet is now alleged to have been complicit in the demise and near bankruptcy of one of our largest banks. Brown has suddenly retreated from one of his former favourites as though he is radioactive.

The suspicion is though that the damage is done. Crosby is radioactive to a Prime Minister and a government who are already badly burnt by their past words and deeds. Brown has recently been elevating to the knighthood, to various quangos or to the House of Lords a collection of cronies to act as advisers or compliant report authors. Now one of those cronies has had to be jettisoned for fear of bringing into question the Prime Minister's judgement. The fact of the matter is though that his judgement has already been shown to be flawed and faulty. With each passing day, more old statements, hubristic slogans and flawed appointments will haunt this Prime Minister. It's as inevitable as the continual ticking of that electoral clock.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Why Assemble?

There is a ridiculous controversy brewing today concerning the daily assemblies that state schools have to hold in accordance with the law and which must include an 'act of collective worship...wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.' In our multicultural state this was a controversy waiting to happen.

Apparently, in this school, Meersbrook Bank School in Sheffield, parents of Muslim pupils have been allowed to withdraw their children from these assemblies since they objected to their Christian character. The new headteacher of the school sought, in keeping with a policy that is widespread around the country, to stop these withdrawals on the perfectly sensible and reasonable grounds that it is a bad idea to allow such segregation on religious grounds.

The only surprise about this is that more schools have not found themselves in this position. In our PC obsessed country, I for one would have thought more schools would have bent to this kind of segregation, especially where Muslims are concerned. Yet the principle against segregation is a good one and ought to be upheld.

But the best way of stopping such segregation is to take religion out of education altogether. Why is it necessary or desirable to force children to take part in an act of worship?

Quite what the point of these assemblies is supposed to be I have never really understood. Why do schools have to have them? What purpose do they serve? Shouldn't such matters be down to individual choice?

The secondary school that I attended didn't have daily assemblies because the school hall wasn't big enough for everyone to fit in. Thus we had twice weekly assemblies and the school was split into the lower school and the upper school. It was an occasion most of us hated and tried to avoid where possible and I was no rebel.

Furthermore I found the whole notion of an act of daily worship objectionable. I became an atheist at the age of 12. I remember it well. Going into the school hall and singing hymns was anathema to me. I would just stand in silence registering my own private defiance. Children are able to make up their own minds about these things from quite an early age.

Religion should not have a part in education. It certainly shouldn't be imposed on children by law as something that schools are obliged to provide, even if they fudge those rules when it suits them. Religion should be a matter of personal choice and education should be firmly secular. Why should any child be subjected to this subtle indoctrination, whatever their background and upbringing? This is a law which should be repealed as a matter of principle and not because of any special pleading from minority groups who, no doubt, will claim to be offended.

A Chapter Ends

I spoke to Leah tonight and she told me that she has started seeing someone else, a man much younger than me, probably fitter than me and without my geographical issues. It doesn't come as a surprise, Leah is a lovely and beautiful girl. It doesn't make it any less depressing though.

But I did ask. I wanted to know and she has been honest with me. I'm pissed off and jealous but I'm philosophical. It's my fault things haven't worked out between us. They could have done. We both wanted them to. But the distance and my fitful finances defeated me. Let this be a lesson to all those who want to do something 'creative'. It's good to pursue your dreams but it can bugger up your social and love life.

Still, at least I know now and before I made any expensive and potentially embarrassing plans for the weekend. Well, I had made the plans but I was waiting before I put them into action, or more accurately before I spent money on them, some of which I was going to have to borrow. My caution turns out to have been providential for a change. I was going to send flowers and announce, via the flowers, that by the time Leah got them I would have landed at JFK. I had it all set out in my head. It was quite romantic I thought. But there was the nagging doubt that a girl like Leah would have plenty of potential suitors this weekend and she wouldn't be waiting for me. It turns out that I was quite right. It would have been an embarrassing, fruitless and expensive weekend. At least this way I get to be depressed without having to sit on a plane for 7 hours.

But Leah has told me she accepts that we are destined to stay apart, her there and me here. She has met someone who cares for her and with whom she can see a future. She wants us to remain in touch. I would like that too, although of course it won't make it any easier to move on.

I had this situation with an ex girlfriend, Lisa. We remained friends after we broke up but she was always someone I kept in reserve so to speak and she treated me the same way. Every once in a while we would get back together either officially or just by spending a lot of time together and sleeping together. I think this is a quite common state of affairs actually. I suppose when two people know each other it is tempting to get back together from time to time just because it is easy and comfortable without any of the awkwardness one gets with new people.

But anyway, another chapter in my vexed love life is coming to an end. Leah and I will be friends which is some consolation. She is going to go off to law school soon anyway and that would have made matters difficult because it would have meant several more years before we could make permanent plans. Then again I would have waited for her because she really was worth it. But I find myself unusually keen on the idea of settling down with someone and having a normal family life. I've never really felt that way before. I've always been happy to be the eternal bachelor and the idea of kids didn't appeal. Now they do, just as they seem further away than ever. Maybe the feeling will fade. Maybe it was the idea of settling down specifically with Leah that appealed. Since that is no longer an option maybe I will now go back to being happy to be single.

This weekend is my friend Bhairav's birthday. Maybe it's not too late to make plans to go out there and get drunk with him. He's even worse with women than I am which would be a comfort quite honestly. So, if I don't post anything this weekend you'll know where I am.

Monday, 9 February 2009

No Magic Wand

We can pretty much take for granted that when Gordon Brown used the word 'Depression' rather than 'Recession' in last week's Prime Minister's Questions it was inadvertent. But, as many have speculated, it did not come entirely out of the blue. He used that word because it is a word being used increasingly in government meetings. The fear of depression and all that goes with it is stalking this government.

Any doubt about this has now been completely dispelled thanks to a speech given by Ed Balls at the weekend which has now come to light. Speaking to Labour's Yorkshire conference, he said that this 'is a financial crisis more extreme and more serious than that of the 1930s'. If this is a crisis worse even than the 1930s, a time of mass unemployment, mass homelessness, of protectionism and deflation, a crisis that was only finally resolved by World War II, then we are indeed facing a depression. That would be the only word for it.

Is he right? I don't think so. This is a nasty recession. It may even become something more akin to a depression, although that is a term that is ill defined. But the danger is that we are talking outselves into something that will be much worse than it needs to be. Whilst this is a crisis that has its roots in the greed and stupidity of bankers and the wilful blindness of ministers and regulators, it has gained momentum thanks to doom and gloom in the media and an uncoordinated, ill thought out set of attention grabbing policies made on the hoof. I'm afraid to say that the same is now true in America. The economic stimulus package going through Congress will not work. It is about politics and politicians' desire to be seen to be doing something.

By pretending that the government can wave a magic wand and get us out of this, they have created problems further down the line when those policies don't work. It just feeds into a mood of pessimism but more than that it just stores up problems for further down the line meaning that the recovery, when it comes, will be slower. We were enjoying a boom based on credit and rising asset prices. When those prices started to deflate as they were always going to and then credit started to be reined in the bubble burst. We are now having to adjust to these new more straitened circumstances. That process is painful. It has to be painful. It is like a hangover after a long party.

But this really doesn't have to be a depression because we know how the last one came about. It came about because governments panicked, they saw rising unemployment and raised tariffs on imports, they resorted to lots of measures which only made matters worse. They also tried a lot of Keynesian type measures such as those we are seeing now which did not work because they couldn't compensate for the fall off in demand. Ultimately what cured the last depression was a war, essentially Keynesian policies but on a vast scale which took us 60 years to pay off and created economic problems for decades.

It is right to worry about another depression but only so that we can avoid making the same mistakes. Such mistakes are protectionism and panic measures and pretending that this is going to be a process that is going to be anything other than painful and expensive. The government has thus far been pretending precisely that and been running around endlessly in an attempt to prove it. They now need to face reality. By doing so they could prevent things getting much worse, even more painful and might prevent something catastrophic happening such as what happened at the end of the 1930s.