Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Reluctant Democracy

Norwich City HallImage via Wikipedia

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Labour have decided to move the writ for the Norwich North by election to be held on 23rd July. This date, although difficult given their current standings in the polls, at least has the virtue of being after Parliament has gone into the summer recess. If it is another disaster then MPs won't be together and thus less able to plot against GordonBrown again.

The fact that an election is being held at all is a rare example of principle in politics. Forced out by his colleagues, the current incumbent, Ian Gibson, chose to resign from Parliament when he could have held on until a general election. Perhaps he was also keen to take one more swipe at his now ex leader too. Who could blame him. Gibson has been treated somewhat more harshly than others who are considered more reliable.

At the moment it looks likely that the Tories will win in Norwich. If they do it will be a good sign for the general election. Labour will attempt to shrug it off but the timing is indicative of nervousness that they could face a fractious and tense summer and autumn.
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Cannot Identify

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 09:  Home Secretary Ala...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

This is a government that is performing so many U turns it's going around in circles. It looks like a learner driver trying unsuccessfully to exit a roundabout.

Alan Johnson, the new Home Secretary, has announced today that ID cards will still go ahead but that they will not be compulsory. So what exactly is the point of them then? This was supposed to be a measure to make us all secure. It was a panacea to prevent terrorism. Now it is a voluntary scheme that will be foisted on passport holders but with no obligation to carry them anywhere except when travelling abroad.

At present, if you are stopped by the police, there is no obligation to provide any ID. Now there will be no obligation to producewhat is laughably called a national ID card. That is beyond ridiculous.

This has always been a nonsense. It was the sort of scheme dreamt up by a government keen on gimmicks and quick fixes but with no long term strategy. Terrorists and criminals are adept at avoiding security checks and finding loopholes. Now the government has created its own gigantic loophole for something that was never going to achieve much anyway. This was always going to be a scheme that merely cost the rest of us money for no good reason. If the entire population had been compelled to have the card and to produce it on demand it might have achieved something, albeit nothing like as much as was claimed. But the government has fudged this from the beginning because they knew it was against basic British principles of freedom and openness. Now, instead of just giving up on the whole thing as an expensive waste of time, they are fudging and spinning to save face.

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Balls the Bully

Ed BallsImage via Wikipedia

Given that I have been extremely critical of the government in recent weeks, albeit with every justification, out of fairness I should point out that I rather approve of some of Ed Balls's ideas about education, in particular the proposal to start licensing teachers for five years periods. This is an entirely sensible and genuinely innovative idea, albeit one borrowed from America. But then many political policies are borrowed from abroad. Michael Gove's impressive education reform plans are greatly influenced by Sweden. We of course gave the world privatisation.

It should also be noted that Labour, which came to power 12 years ago promising education, education, education, is still failing on this core, albeit meaningless pledge, despite the billions spent. They are now reversing several key policies which were once at the core of their beliefs. But at least they are being open minded and are willing to think again.

So yes, credit where credit is due. Balls is for once not talking balls.

But then I read this piece by Fraser Nelson in The Spectator. It would seem that Mr Balls is reverting to type and even attempting to do his own bullying for a change since the demise of Damian McBride.

Balls objects to being called a liar. The fact of the matter is however that both he and his boss are quite deliberately lying to the electorate about spending and debt. Yes they use all kinds of clever accounting techniques to disguise what they are doing but, as at the last PMQs and across the media they have been caught out. Brown has been guilty of this from the moment he entered government. He was aided and abetted in his deceit by Ed Balls.

But the nation soon learned not to take their statements at face value. We learnt to read the small print. They only have themselves to blame if they are now unable to get away with it and thus are being labelled liars.

When Brown became PM he promised to end the culture of spin. He hasn't come close to even trying. In fact it has become worse. Spinning is trying to put the best gloss on the news, trying to move the story to positive aspects, persuading the press to cover a story in the most flattering way. For a long time Labour was very good at it. But we got wise to their tactics. We saw through the spin.

Now they are reduced to lying. That is what their line on spending and borrowing is. It's not spin. It's not a question of semantics. It is using deliberately opaque language and statistics to tell lies about what is happening and what their plans are. It is Orwellian double speak.

Balls is reduced to calling up the likes of Fraser Nelson and trying to bully him into retracting the liar accusation. Yet Nelson has the facts and graphs to back his assertion. Welcome to modern media Mr Balls. You can't get away with it any longer. Can this old dog learn new tricks? Or are you incapable of being honest with the British people about the state of the nation's finances?
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Shutting out the Elements

Wimbledon 2009: Andy MurrayImage by E01 via Flickr

So the Wimbledon Centre Court roof works. The age old problem of our unpredictable weather has finally been defeated. Best of all the solution did not have to be imported from foreign and sunnier climes. It was a British solution to a quintessential British problem by British engineers. It makes one feel quite proud.

They carried on playing until well after 10 in what would have been the dark just to celebrate. Of course some things never change, there was still a nailbiting (if you are that way inclined) match involving the latest great British hope, Andy Murray. But this time he came through, at least for now. He had no weather to blame after all and the BBC got to show it all in peaktime.

It's all bound to come back and bite us at some point though. For now we are sweltering in a heatwave and the Met Office is congratulating itself that, for the first time in 3 years, its predictions about a glorious and hot summer are proving correct, although of course we are not yet in July. I fully expect that the rain will wait in the wings though and deny England a victory against the Aussies. I don't think they can put a roof over the Oval, Lords or Edgbaston.
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Off With Their Heads

Kensington Palace, where Sarah and Anne met fo...Image via Wikipedia

Is our royal family good value for money? It's a difficult question to answer. What is smiling and waving, making lacklustre speeches in a peculiar accent, taking foreign trips to do the same and meeting and greeting foreign dignitaries worth exactly? More to the point, couldn't ordinary people do much the same thing very much more cheaply and without the need for all of those houses and wall to wall servants?

After all who did the world's politicians want to be seen with the most at the G20 recently? Was it our dowdy, octogenarian head of state? No. It was a cool, hip and groovy guy called Barack Obama. Gordon Brown frequently looked like an awkward and lovelorn teenager whenever he was in his presence. Sylvio Berlusconi was probably just jealous because any babes present were looking at the new guy from across the pond.

We are told that our royals are a bargain because they only cost every man, woman and child in the country 70p. This just goes to prove that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Using that kind of accounting method, our MPs, recently unanimously reviled over their expenses, are probably costing us all much the same. So what was all of the fuss about?

Yet the parasites in chief are now pleading for more money. The poor dears have had to dip into their reserves, reserves built up thanks to a formerly over generous deal presented to them by John Major nearly 20 years ago. No wonder he was given a knighthood. Now though they are handing around the begging bowl. The palaces are looking dilapidated we are told. The gilt is looking distinctly off colour. One gets the impression that they are desperate to get the Tories back in power so that they can finally get a payrise.

Now if I were in charge, (something unlikely ever to happen because I would find having to go to the palace to ask for the job I had just been elected by the people to do somewhat de trop) I would be inclined to tell them to get real. Even if one accepts that someone with no noticeable talent or qualification for the top job should be our head of state, quite why there should be a whole family of them is a mystery. Why do we need Prince Andrew, Princess Ann and the biggest prat of them all Prince Edward marching around the country patronising us? Why must we constantly put up with Prince Charles giving us the benefit of his opinions and alleged experience on matters about which he knows nothing?

Then there is the way they spend that money. We are not permitted to know too much. The country has been rightly outraged by the antics of our elected representatives but what about the unelected ones at the top? They tend to keep their spending under cover. There is Prince Andrew, a trade ambassador, or so we are told. Except his duties tend to take him close to golf courses on a remarkable number of occasions. If they are insufficiently close to golf courses he thinks nothing of using extremely expensive transport at our expense to narrow the distance. Oh and he expects us to pay for police protection of his daughters too. Not because they are in any real danger as they cavort around the world with a retinue of armed men and women trailing in their wake, but because having such protection confers status. It costs hundreds of thousands every year just so that they can feel important.

But most of all, why do they need so many bloody houses? In addition to the big house at the end of the Mall, they have three other big palaces or houses in London alone. Then they have Windsor Castle just outside the capital plus other houses dotted around the country which they actually own. Why? They're a family. These are big houses. If they can't stand the sight of one another let them have a wing each. Or better yet, tell the useless peripheral ones to bugger off and get real jobs and homes of their own.

And why aren't we, the poor sods who pay for the upkeep of all of these houses, allowed in more often to have a look at the places? The rest of the landed aristocracy in this country has long grown accustomed to having to show we hoi polloi around their homes or to sell them off if we show insufficient interest. If the curtains are looking a little frayed then open up the doors all year round and make a few quid out of Daily Mail types who would no doubt love to come along and take a look at how their heroes live. And if that doesn't cover the bills, then sell or rent out a palace or two. What useful purpose does Kensington Palace serve? There are billionaires out there who would pay a footballer's transfer fee for the chance to have that address. Sure they could be a little vulgar and new money but then our royals only got where they are today by being at the respectable end of a line of cheats, warmongers, adulterers, conquerors and murderers.

That's what aristocracy and royalty is ultimately about when you think about it. We are supposed to defer to these people on account of their lineage. Yet that lineage came about because one of their ancestors, some time in the past, killed people, grabbed land or was given titles in return for various favours often including sex. On that basis, in a couple of centuries time, we will all be deferring to and admiring the latest generation of families who at the moment are gangsters, drug dealers or Russian oligarchs. All the more reason to allow one of them in to Kensington Palace so that they can start practising their airs and graces.

So no, all things considered, I strongly object to the idea of handing the family Windsor any more money. Let them raise it in other ways. Let the minor and useless ones show visitors around Buck House to earn themselves a crust. Let Charles give the benefit of his experience to people who are willing to listen for a change. If they are Daily Mail readers they will probably agree with him. Some aristocrats have even sold off some of their titles. It's as good a way of getting a king as the present system. Footballers and oligarchs are fond of such things I believe. Would King David of Beckham be such a bad idea? He's no worse at giving speeches and his taste in architecture and wives is at least as good as our real next king.
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Monday, 29 June 2009

Policy Lite

EDINBURGH, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 05: Scotland...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

So this is vision apparently. If this is the case then I think I need an eye test. Gordon Brown today told us what he has planned in the last few months of his administration, a raft of proposals that have apparently pushed out the previously vital Royal Mail reforms.

So what revolutionary new policies are we to see from the man who has waited two years to present his vision to a nation sat on the edge of its seat? Well, not a lot really. Gordon Brown policies tend not to be anything of the sort. They tend to be vague aspirations, full of lofty sounding rhetoric but with an absence of any idea about how to achieve them.

Labour seems genuinely to believe that all it has to do is set a target for something and it will magically be achieved. So, the private sector, we are told, is going to stump up £100 billion for low carbon energy. Furthermore all of this cash, created presumably at the wave of Gordon's magic wand (or is he going to quantitatively ease it into existence?) is going to create a million jobs. Marvellous!

The nation is going to be hooked up in its entirety to super fast broadband as we were told just last week. It's not clear where the money is coming from for that either. I expect the magic private sector will suddenly discover massive profit making opportunities in John O Groats, Upper Piddle and Dingley Dell and race to lay fibre optic cables to them all.

There is to be a new Innovation Fund, whatever that means, which will again 'lever in' another billion from the private sector to fund 1.5 million high skilled jobs. Christ, at this rate we'll all have two jobs, just like some MPs.

There were some half decent ideas, although none of them really amounted to a vision. I have long argued here and on my previous blog, that the long term unemployed should be offered guaranteed training, education or jobs with no option but to take them. That is entirely sensible and overdue. Labour has convinced itself that it is offering more 'real help and advice' to the unemployed during this recession. It is doing nothing of the sort. Ask anyone who is unemployed and they will tell you that it is a box ticking exercise and nothing more. If you are unemployed then you are on your own. The only difference is that now, unlike in the 80s, it is not so necessary to get on your bike to look for work. It is much more productive to get on the internet. Still, if this new initiative does what Brown says, and this remains to be seen, then it is a good and positive step forward.

Elsewhere, the government is promising more entitlements for patients and citizens here and there. It's just a new way of having targets without having targets. Some of the entitlements, as is often the case with Brown announcements, are already in place, such as the guarantee of seeing a specialist within two weeks for those diagnosed with cancer. And they are not really entitlements anyway. They're just aspirations with fancy lettering. Some of them have been around for ten years anyway.

There is also to be yet another crime bill. How many is that now? You might imagine that they would have realised that legislation is not a panacea to crime by now. But apparently not.

Oh and, after twelve years in power, the prime minister who has more peers in his government than any since the 19th century, is finally going to get to grips with reform and democratisation of the House of Lords. Hurrah to that. But let's wait to see the detail.

But what stands out most of all from all of this is not the U turns or the long delayed reforms; it is not the double announcements or the repackaging of old promises from ten years ago; it is the fact that once again we are getting no indication of how they are going to pay for anything. Billions will come from the magical private sector. Money will be diverted magically from other departments. But this does not mean that those departments' budgets will be cut. Oh no. This is extra money, unspent money. Maybe they found it down the back of the sofa that Tony Blair used to use to conduct government from. There was plenty of money washing around back then. Some could easily have been mislaid.

So it's more of the same from Gordon, which is to say not very much. His vision, such as it is, seems to be recycled. It's his central modus operandi. He has a policy and then announces it over and over again as many times as he can get away with it. He has a slogan and he repeats that over and over again ad nauseum, in the hope that it sinks in, like an annoying jingle in a commercial. The one radical policy he had has now been abandoned because he is too weak to push it through. Oh, and he refuses to tell the nation how he is going to pay for anything, pretending that all will be well in the land of Brown's billions.

This is a government and a prime minister utterly bereft of ideas. They are bankrupt intellectually and refuse to tell us how they are going to avoid bankrupting the country. We have another year of this to come.
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Lame Duck Labour

Royal Mail Group LtdImage via Wikipedia

We are now starting to see, in all its gory detail, what a lame duck administration really looks like. This is a government and a prime minister in headlong retreat, unable to push through what little legislation they have actually got any ideas about and having to twist and turn like a twisty turny thing, as Blackadder once said, on everything from spending to schools.

Over the weekend, Ed Balls made all kinds of promises about a mishmash of vague new policies and seemed to be committing the government to new spending, although he was similarly vague about where the money is coming from. At the same time we learn that they are postponing a forthcoming spending review. They are doing this precisely because they know that it would reveal the cuts they say that they are not going to impose and so they are unwilling to be honest about this prior to an election. There can be no other reason for this. It is astonishingly mendacious even for this government.

In another impressive performance today, David Cameron gave one of his regular press conferences. He argued, I think correctly, that Gordon Brown is intent on repeating his lies about Tory cuts versus his own investment because he thinks that the British electorate, or at least a substantial part of them, are too stupid to see through this. It is an attempt to shore up the Labour base. A minister has acknowledged this, albeit off the record. Yet this reveals with what contempt the metropolitan elite running Labour holds traditional working class Labour voters. And they wonder why so many are turning away from the party and even voting for the BNP.

This is a government that is now utterly directionless, whatever they say in their latest relaunch. They are already retreating on various education reforms. Now they are putting reform of the Royal Mail on hold. Peter Mandelson claims that there is no legislative time available for this. This is nonsense. There is more than enough time to push through legislation, it is just that this weakened prime minister does not have the support to do it. There is more substance to Mandelson's claim that the economic circumstances for part privatisation are not currently in place. But this would not prevent them legislating for it right now. According to their own economic forecasts published a couple of months ago, by the time the legislation is passed we will be enjoying a trampoline recovery.

I am actually against the current plans for Royal Mail reform and part privatisation. Privatisation is not some magical cure for all state industries, especially one like Royal Mail that is inefficient and has been further damaged by the decision to open it up to competition before it was modernised. Other nationalised industries were privatised as monopolies and allowed to modernise before competition was allowed in. It isn't as if Royal Mail is unique. Other postal services around the world, in America for instance, are also struggling in the face of falling volumes thanks to the internet and other new technologies. Hard choices are going to have to be made just as they are going to have to be made in all kinds of industries revolutionised in the last few years as the world changes.

But if the government honestly believes in its policy, and Mandelson clearly does, he could and should use his renowned communication skills to debate the issue. The fact that he will not is purely a matter of politics and nothing to do with economic exigencies or parliamentary scheduling.

This is a government that is unable to govern. What precisely is it clinging on for? Gordon Brown tells us that his mission is to get us through this recession. Yet he is refusing to conduct important reviews into public spending or push through reforms because he is too weak politically. That spending review is vital if we are to bring ourselves out of our current difficulties. We are borrowing money at unprecedented levels and our creditors want to know that we are good for the money. If Brown were really on a mission to save us from recession he would be willing to talk honestly about the hard choices ahead and set out the path to fiscal sustainability. But Gordon Brown's mission is to cling on at all costs and nothing more.
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Michael Vaughan Retires

'Calling The Shots' By Michael VaughanImage via Wikipedia

English cricket lost one of its finest this weekend as Michael Vaughan bowed to the inevitable and announced his retirement. One could argue that cricket lost him some time ago. Age and injury had withered him in a way that the world's bowlers could only dream of. A fine if not quite a great cricketer was afflicted by a loss of form and confidence almost immediately after his greatest triumph.

But what a triumph! Few who saw the Ashes series of 2005 will forget it. The allure of 20/20 cricket is easy to see but this was the full and untinkered with game in all its glory. There was tension, there was excitement, there was sportsmanship, there was rivalry, there was humour, there was brilliant and exceptional skill and talent. And right at the centre of it all was Michael Vaughan exuding confidence and determination even when his heart must have been fluttering. Fans across the country that summer frequently had to leave the room or look away such was tension. Vaughan just kept changing his bowlers and field, encouraging his team and exuding confidence even while his insides were churning.

Michael Vaughan was one of the best captains England has had. His departure is inevitable because the ravages of the time have caught up with him but he leaves behind some fantastic memories.
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A Digital Icon

Michael Jackson StarImage via Wikipedia

Within minutes of hearing about the death of Michael Jackson, I wrote here that he would very probably soon be emulating Elvis and earning more in death than he was doing while alive. This of course will take some doing. Jackson earned and spent squillions thanks to his huge and probably never to be repeated record sales and monstrous concerts. Within a couple of days though he already has a number one album. It's just the beginning. Elvis had hits for months after his death, as the record companies plundered their archives for money making opportunities. The same was true when John Lennon was murdered. Jackson is likely to put both of these giants in the shade.

Some of the more hysterical reactions to his death are of course difficult to fathom for those of us who just enjoyed his music and thought him a wonderful dancer and performer, albeit a rather odd human being. Yet one only has to look at the much repeated footage to see the reactions of concert goers. Some facial expressions looked more appropriate to a religious event than a pop concert. This is therefore a good guide to what we have to expect in the coming days. A man who had been largely forgotten about in recent years, other than by his most ardent fans, is now going to be an even bigger icon in death. It's always the way.

It's strange to think that many kids and teenagers will probably be discovering his music for the first time this weekend. I note for instance that one of the most popular tracks being downloaded is, as recommended here, Man in the Mirror. A fine choice. Those new to his oeuvre will be mining a rich source of pleasure. Somehow it will have a special kind of resonance now that he is no more, he died young and in a rock starrishly mysterious way.

I owned Jackson's records on good old fashioned vinyl. The digital generation will now be plundering the archives for music they never knew about. They will hear it on the radio or on the endless tributes shows and they will be able to access it instantly without having to hot foot it to the shops. We have seen these sort of reactions before of course. The one for Michael Jackson will be bigger and quicker for the instant gratification age. How much that is down to him and how much down to modern technology is hard to tell.

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Sunday, 28 June 2009

Diplomatic Choices

President of Iran @ Columbia University.Image via Wikipedia

The rhetoric and propaganda coming from the Iranian government gets ever more strident and bizarre. It's probably designed to whip up a kind of revolutionary fervour amongst the people.

Yet design may be too strong a word. This is a knee jerk and rather confused response from a regime which was caught unawares by the response of its people to the election result. Their rigging of the election was done in such a cack handed and obvious way that it was bound to cause anger. It's all rather symbolic of the way the country is run under Ahmadinejad.

Their accusations of interference by western governments, in particular Britain, are of course a standard tactic taken from the operating manual of all dictatorships - when in trouble, stir up anger against outsiders. But again it has been amateurish and risible. They are accusing Britain of having flown in a plane full of secret agents to whip up the protests. They even accused the BBC's John Leyne, now deported, of having arranged the murder of Neda Soltan so that he could make a film about it.

Now, today, they have arrested a few Iranian employees of the British embassy in Tehran. Why? Because they can and they know there is nothing we can do about it other than protest from afar. This is the same regime which, not so long ago and for no good reason, grabbed some British sailors from international waters for a propaganda coup. They pick on Britain because we are still regarded as big players on the world scene but without the clout to make them pay.

Little Millie, the Foreign Secretary David Miliband, is today at a European summit. He has come out with the standard diplomatic response to this, calling it unacceptable. The fact of the matter is however that we have no choice but to accept this. What can we do?

If the EU were what it purports to be and not just a big trading block with pretensions to statehood, it could actually do something about this. But it won't. Europe ought to be just as powerful on the world stage as America and China. It isn't though because the various countries of Europe tend to look to their own interests rather than work collectively when push comes to shove. So there will be more diplomatic words in support of Britain but no actions whatsoever. The same is true for the world as a whole. The western world talks big but we can never follow through. Further we allow the likes of China and Russia to frustrate what little we are prepared to do. Iran knows this. North Korea knows this. All of the tinpot regimes of the world know that the so called international community is divided and so they can rule. That's why they behave as they do.

Iran is telling the world to stay out of it affairs. Yet that is precisely what we are doing. We have no choice. Iran is very well aware of this. They can shake their fists at us, expel diplomats, arrest journalists, shut down our broadcasters and websites and murder with impunity and then have the temerity to blame it all on us. We watch on in an impotent rage. We do so because of the choices we make during normal times, choices to engage with, trade with and indulge the likes of Iran, Burma, North Korea et al. But more than that, we choose to turn a blind eye to China and Russia and their peculiar, selfish brand of diplomacy too. It's that choice that is most corrosive and is set to get worse in the years to come.
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Saturday, 27 June 2009

Silencing Dissent

Polar Bear at Cape Churchill (Wapusk National ...Image via Wikipedia

There is, as you probably know, a major conference taking part in Copenhagen this December when a new deal will be cobbled together, supposedly to combat climate change. As part of the campaign and so as to soften us up for more taxes and changes to our lifestyle, we are being assailed by reams and reams of propaganda dressed up as reports. Last week there was the release by the British government of a weather forecast of the future, faithfully reported by much of the media despite that fact that it was based on little more than guesswork or conjecture. It was widely dismissed as meaningless and pointless by many experts. Yet this was widely ignored by the media who preferred, as usual, to concentrate on the message of doom and gloom it conveyed.

There will be more such reports over the coming months. Governments around the world, if they are to justify draconian measures, need to convince us that they are saving the world.

Am I being too cynical? Well, consider another conference that is taking place in Copenhagen next week which will be discussing that great icon of the green meanies, the Polar Bear. A renowned expert on the subject of bears, Dr Mitchell Taylor, has been barred from the meeting because he has different opinions on the causes of climate change/global warming, call it what you will. Furthermore, his studies have shown that, far from their numbers declining, the bears are doing very well and thriving.

Dr Mitchell was barred, he was told, not because his expertise on bears was in doubt, but because his views on climate change are "extremely unhelpful". What a fascinating choice of words. It's not that they doubt his abilities, or his science. It is just that he will detract from the message they are trying to convey. You can read about all of this in full in Christopher Booker's article here. Booker is someone else who has been demonised by the green meanies who all to often believe in playing the man rather than the ball. Since Booker insists upon being off message he has incurred the wrath of George Monbiot, although I am sure he wears that like a badge of honour.

This does however tell you all you need to know about the warmist agenda does it not. Not content with disseminating meaningless studies and reports, they also attempt to silence anyone who disagrees with them or whose views are 'unhelpful'. If they are so confident in the robustness of their science and theories why is this necessary? Is this the way that science is supposed to proceed, or is it the precise opposite? How can we ever be confident that our taxes are being spent wisely if all debate is prevented?

This is the future of our planet we are talking about here. Contrary to the propaganda, those of us who doubt the science underlying the warmists agenda are not in the pay of oil companies and care very much about our planet. It's just that we strongly suspect that the billions about to be raised and spent would be better utililised saving rainforests, cleaning lakes and rivers, stopping the overfishing of our seas and oceans, undertaking research into nuclear fusion and any number of other projects that would provide a clear and demonstrable benefit to us all rather than cutting the emissions of a harmless gas which is actually vital to life.
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Burdensome Government

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 01:  (L to R) Sarah Br...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

By and large I have approved of Barack Obama's first few months as president, even if I have not agreed with everything he has done. He has made an impressive break with the past, shown himself willing to acknowledge mistakes, been pragmatic where necessary and principled where possible. His determination to bring about real change as opposed to merely deploying it as a campaign slogan has been a welcome surprise, especially when compared to his new pal Gordon Brown.

Yet, like many or even most mainstream politicians, Obama has shown himself to be in thrall to the fantasy politics of climate change by pushing through a bill which will seek to limit greenhouse emissions. He is not alone in this of course. Gordon Brown has been making noises about a huge fund to help third world nations with their emissions and attempts to adapt. The difference is that he is unlikely to be around to figure out how to pay for it.

The bill currently going through Congress was only passed by the House by a very narrow margin. This reflects very real and indeed realistic concerns that this is precisely the wrong thing to be doing at a time when America is struggling through a recession. These measures will load costs on to industry. Even in the good times American and other western industries are struggling against cheaper eastern alternatives as the car industry shows. Yet out politicians are loading more costs on top.

Of course they come up with all kinds of excuses. Investment will be provided to research new technologies for the future such as the ever elusive electric car. This ignores the question of where the electricity comes from of course. Hydrogen cell technologies are a more realistic alternative and a welcome one. But that too will take time and will cost billions in new infrastructure.

Then there is the claim that new green industries will create jobs. This is patent nonsense. We have real empirical evidence of just how nonsensical this is with the example of Spain, a nation that has seized these new industries with great enthusiasm but is currently enduring a recession amongst the worst of all the major European economies and with the highest unemployment. Part of this is to do with factors peculiar to Spain, such as its reliance on construction as a major prop to its economy. But green jobs are not taking up the slack. At best such jobs, even if thousands of them are created which is debatable to say the least, will just compensate for the jobs lost in other industries which will find themselves outpriced.

America and the rest of the western world is looking nervously towards China and the other BRIC economies as they become ever more powerful economically and then politically. Competition is of course a good thing even if such low wage economies have something of an unfair advantage. But our politicians seem determined to burden our economies with even greater costs so as to burnish their green credentials. China is already sitting on a sea of our treasury bonds and now we are planning to hand them a further competitive advantage. Do we really imagine that they will follow our lead and cut back on emissions? It's utter madness.

The science of climate change is in flux, whatever the various pressure groups tell us about the debate being over. The trace gas that is carbon dioxide has now been labelled a pollutant, despite the fact that it is a vital constituent of life on Earth. The proposals to tackle climate change make no sense economically, but they make no sense scientifically either, even if we accept the case that our changing climate is wholly or mostly caused by us.

Life on this planet has been driven by a constantly evolving and changing climate. It is the reason humanity and many of the species with which we share our planet are here at all. We cannot change what is a natural process because carbon cannot be eliminated and neither should it be. Instead we should be prepared to adapt and evolve the way we live. But that is not a quick fix and politicians love to pretend that they have immediate answers to our problems.

Over the longer term we could and should develop new technologies to wean us away from fossil fuels. That is a perfectly sensible and reasonable long term goal. But politics is no good at thinking longer term because politicians have to think about the next election. The costs they are saddling us with now are the thin end of the wedge. This will do long term damage for little or no gain. What they are proposing will have no impact on our climate even if their interpretation of what will happen in the future is correct. What it will do, and this is undeniable, is throw more people out of work.

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The Mission

Gordon Brown touring the slums of Nairobi, Ken...Image via Wikipedia

Today marks the second anniversary of Gordon Brown's ascent to the top job. Street parties are unlikely to be held. It would be churlish to deny that he has had good moments during these 24 months, it's just that they have been infrequent and now seem rather distant.

In an interview for The Times yesterday, part of yet another relaunch, and possibly a bit of damage limitation from his earlier interview with The Guardian in which he seemed to be dropping hints about walking away, he talked once again about getting on with the job and not thinking about anything else. This, apparently, is meant to comfort us all.

Brown also informed us that he sees it as 'his mission' to get the country through these difficult times. Yet is this not his central problem? How can it be his mission to get us through a crisis he once said could never happen under his stewardship? If this is his mission what happens once we are through? Is his job done? If this is his mission what else did he plan on doing once he got the keys to Number 10? This is a job he has wanted for most of his life and for which he plotted and smeared and threw temper tantrums. Shouldn't he have a more rounded and all encompassing mission?

The trouble is that he quite clearly does not have anything more he wants to do. Number 10 is and remains almost entirely bereft of any big new ideas and policies. The only policy reforms he offers are gimmicky plans that will apparently hand more power to people and enable them to hold service providers to account. It all sounds strangely similar to the Citizen's Charter, another gimmicky and ultimately meaningless initiative introduced by the Major government in its dying days as it struggled for something new to say.

During his two years in charge, Brown has been high on rhetoric, or at least as high on it as he is capable of being, but low on detail. That remains the case now. His best moments as Prime Minister have been when he has been forced to be decisive and dynamic because of the unexpected. Events, dear boy, events, as one of his predecessors once said. Without such events what does this Prime Minister have to say?

This is why this latest relaunch is doomed to failure as have all the others. Brown is flailing around for something to say, for the vision he promised us when he called off that election. There is still speculation about him and whether he will lead his party into the next election. I still think he means to go all the way. Macavity has become Micawber. He is waiting for something to turn up, for the economy to turn around and for him to be able to claim that he has achieved that mission. Even if that happens and the electorate give him the praise he thinks he deserves, what will be his mission then? The suspicion is that for Brown winning elections is his mission and nothing more.
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Friday, 26 June 2009

Don't Talk About It Play the Music

BBC Television CentreImage via Wikipedia

BBCBBC via last.fm

Note to the idiots at the BBC: When someone generally acknowledged as the King of Pop dies and you produce a peaktime news special in tribute to him, perhaps, rather than a bunch of talking heads sitting around a desk, it would have been better to play a bit more of the music which made him famous.

It's just a thought. Of course I'm not a highly paid executive who can charge licence payers £2,000 for cutting short my holidays. But I would have thought, notwithstanding my lower pay scale, that the above would have been simple common sense when the world is remembering a musical, that's musical icon.

For how to do it see Channel 4. Maybe they should get a slice of the licence fee after all.
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Thanks for the Memories

Cover of "Thriller"Cover of Thriller

Much is going to be written and said about Michael Jackson in the next few days. There will inevitably be much talk about the plastic surgery, the unproven sexual allegations, the huge spending and the whole circus around him.

Ultimately though, the reason so many are reacting with such shock and sadness is because this was a man of rare talent who really did, at least for a time, live up to the hype. He was the king of pop in the same way that Elvis was the king of rock and roll. He became the superstar he undoubtedly was because he made fantastic pop records, was a brilliant dancer and performer and pioneered a whole different and imaginative approach to the pop video. The video of Thriller was a television event.

In his death he should be remembered first and foremost for the music. He led a rather sad and lonely life in many ways. He never had a proper childhood and this clearly affected him in ways that we can barely imagine. He was a fragile and shy man blessed and maybe a little cursed by a preternatural ability to entertain. That was his tragedy but will be his enduring legacy.

So here, in celebration of what he should be remembered for, are my favourite Michael Jackson tracks. They're not the most obvious ones. But to my mind exemplify the king of pop:

Blame It On The Boogie

I loved this record when I was a kid. It was a Jacksons song rather than Michael Jackson alone but it was pure pop, bouncy and infectious from a period when Michael was a star but yet to become a superstar.

Man In The Mirror

An underrated song this from the BAD album. Perhaps it was overlooked because it was less showy than some of the others. But it had a soulfulness that other more brash songs lacked whilst still having a wonderful tune.

Black or White

Okay it was an example of Jackson at his most pretentious and preachy but you can't fault the sentiment and it's another great record.

Beat It

Ironically these last two are better videos than they are songs but I can't link to a video for this one because it's not permitted on YouTube in the UK. It wasn't one of his best songs, but the video, now overlooked because of Thriller, was one of his best dance performances. At the time he was known as much for the dancing as for the songs. We saw the moonwalk for the first time back then and this high energy performance was the start of his epic videos too.


Again no video available in the UK. This had it all. A voiceover by Vincent Price, a good and original if not one of his greatest songs and that video. It was a television event back in the early eighties and was a real first in so many ways. The dancing, the design, the production values. This is what turned Jackson into the superstar he was until his dying day and will ensure his legendary status.
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Dress Appropriately

Nicolas Sarkozy, a watermark was present that ...Image via Wikipedia

There has been a renewed and welcome debate these last few days about the burqa, the shapeless, all enveloping garment worn by some Muslim women, most often in countries like Afghanistan but increasingly seen on the streets of Britain and elsewhere in Europe. President Sarkozy, keen to defend the secular traditions of France, has indicated he would like to ban the burqa and the only slightly less restrictive Niqab, the similar garment which has a letter box style slot for the eyes.

Now it is hard not to have a certain sympathy for Sarkozy's viewpoint. As an atheist, I of course regard having one's dress code defined by religion as inherently absurd. But these and all Islamic clothing restrictions in reality have nothing to do with the Koran. As with all religions, a convenient interpretation has been arrived at in more conservative and patriarchal societies. Yet, as we have seen this last week on the streets of Iran, even in an Islamic Republic, women do not feel the need to truss themselves up in this way. It is down to culture and tradition, not religion. As so often, this is an issue to do with control and repression and nothing whatever to do with piety, whatever apparently consenting women have been persuaded to think.

Yet having said all of that I am not in favour of a ban. A ban would be hypocritical and would only increase resentment. In a free country we should be entitled to wear what we wish provided it complies with the law. If women are naive or pliable enough to conclude that their religion requires this of them then they should be free to do so.

It should be made clear however that there are certain limits. Employers would be perfectly right to refuse to allow someone to work for them wearing such clothing. It would be dangerous to allow women wearing either the Niqab or the Burqa to drive - they do however and should be prosecuted. How can they possibly have a proper field of vision? In the same way that we must all dress appropriately for work or other situations, our society has a right to request or even require that all citizens dress according to accepted norms under certain circumstances. That is simple common sense.

A few years ago I worked for a while as a bus driver in Birmingham. I frequently drove routes that went through areas with large Muslim communities. The Niqab, although not the Burqa so much, was an infrequent but not unprecedented sight. On one occasion a woman got on to my bus wearing a Niqab. She then produced a bus bass with a photo ID card of her wearing a Niqab. I'm not ashamed to say that I laughed. How utterly ridiculous. Someone somewhere must have allowed that woman to append that picture to her bus pass. Did they not see that it represented certain difficulties?

It ought surely be possible to find a middle way between this kind of excessive liberalism and the hard line French approach. The state should not be in the business of telling people what to wear, however ridiculous we consider their choices. I think teenage boys who wear their trousers half way down their arses look stupid, but hey that's what teenagers are for. If women really think that their god wishes them to hide their faces, and they are happy to be treated as property by men, then there is little we can do about it, provided we are confident that they are doing so consensually. Many Muslim women in Britain, and elsewhere in the west, have adopted such dress as an extreme statement of their Muslim identity as a reaction to what they perceive as an anti Islamic climate following 9/11. That will subside.

Freedom and democracy can sometimes throw up some difficult problems. Yet really this is no problem at all. A free society dictates that we can all do as we wish within the normal confines of the law. Now all we need to do is get the confidence to apply the law equally to everyone.

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Thursday, 25 June 2009

Michael Jackson Dies

As yet unconfirmed but usually reliable media reports this evening are saying that Michael Jackson has been rushed to hospital after suffering a heart attack. The latest reports, again unconfirmed, are that he has died.

Whatever you think of Michael Jackson, and there are few people who don't have some kind of opinion on him, it is impossible to deny that he was prodigiously talented.

Anyone who grew up in the seventies and eighties as I did could not escape the man and, at the time, though we looked askance at his peculiarly changing appearance, he was responsible for some of the best pop music and cutting edge videos around.

Unfortunately, like so many in the business that is show, it seems to have created all kinds of demons within him. His tragedy is that he will now be remembered as much for the controversies that dogged him in the 21st century as for the music in earlier years which sold millions, defined an era and made him into a superstar. He was a flawed genius, his flaws perhaps magnified because of his fame and wealth. Maybe in years to come the flaws will be forgotten and the music will be remembered. Somehow I doubt it. There are too many books and newspapers to be sold as the scandals are dredged up without having to worry about libel laws. His fans, and there are still millions of them, may want to look away now.

I predict though that, like Elvis before him, Michael Jackson will soon be earning even more posthumously than he did at his peak. That's showbusiness too.

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Rush Hour

Until 18 February 2007 the congestion charge a...Image via Wikipedia

This government has been replete with stupid ideas down the years. Tony Blair's instant justice wheeze which would have seen petty offenders marched off to cashpoints to pay their fines was one particular gem. The ban on fox hunting, which has proven utterly unworkable was one that actually made it to the statute book. It is now routinely ignored by police forces with better things to do.

Most ideas though have tended to be floated discreetly and then quietly dropped once the laughter or the outrage has died down. Not that they always listen of course. Gordon Brown becoming Prime Minister was always a stupid idea but they went ahead and did it anyway.

And then there was road pricing. This was one that they looked at quite seriously, even to the point that they looked at the technology available to bring it in. Then 1.8 million people objected via a petition and no more has been heard.

Essentially they proposed fitting cars with satellite linked devices which recorded where motorists went and when and then sent them a monthly bill for so doing. This, as Douglas Adams once wrote about something else completely, made a lot of people very angry and was generally seen as a bad idea. It was a wizard wheeze for the government of course. At a stroke they would have had a marvellous new revenue raising system, another way of spying on us all and something to make them look green all rolled into one. Our roads are too congested we were told. This was the solution.

It did rather overlook the fact that few people actually choose to travel during busy periods. Traffic jams are seldom regarded as fun. They arise, not because we all get up at the same time in the morning with a burning desire to head for city centres, stay a few hours and then come back again simultaneously. This happens because our employers are unreasonable enough to require us to work when everyone else is working. They find us more productive that way. Congestion then was unlikely to be solved.

Another excuse was that the system would have been able to charge people more if they drove more. This however penalised those who live in the country and have no choice but to drive owing to the absence of public transport. It also overlooked the fact that we already have such a system in place. By the simple expedient of putting tax on fuel, the government was already making those who drive more pay more. It even penalises those who offend the green meanies by driving big, fuel hungry cars. No expensive gadgets are necessary.

Road pricing is never going to catch on in this country because we have no tradition of it. It is rather like the NHS. Everyone can see the need for reform but nobody is brave enough to implement it. We can see the advantage of those toll booths across continental roads but, other than on a few bridges and one isolated private motorway near Birmingham which bypasses Spaghetti Junction, our roads remain toll free. On the other hand we do have the most expensive petrol almost anywhere in the western world. We also have some of the worst congestion. But then it's a crowded little island. It is an irony that the same government which allowed a huge increase in immigration over the last decade was at the same time worrying about road congestion.

They have of course got congestion charging in London but that isn't all it's cracked up to be. It is essentially another tax. Congestion in London is just as bad because it is our capital city and it is busy. The only difference now is that people in low paid jobs and shift workers have been priced out of their cars leaving the roads free for those who are wealthy enough not to care. I wonder if that was what they intended.

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Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The Cowards Get Tough

Northern Tehran City with Alborz Mountains in ...Image via Wikipedia

The crowds have thinned in Tehran now and so the authorities, as expected, have chosen this moment to crack down with the utmost brutality. Unconfirmed and probably unconfirmable reports suggest that those brave enough to venture out today have been met with a new kind of savagery which seems more like revenge than any serious attempt to restore order.

There is still hope though. This is a regime that is now governing without consent and which seems to have been fractured by the events of the last ten days. The demonstrations were just the start. What is going on quietly behind the scenes is what will decide matters. The anger people feel will be harboured and stored. It may yet be harvested in a way that the authorities will be unable to resist. For now, their thugs on the streets have prevailed. But regimes which can only function through fear and oppression are inefficient and fractured. An already fragile economy will worsen and that will just lead to further dissent. Strikes and civil disobedience are much harder to crack down on than crowds in public squares. The authorities, for all that they now seem to have regained control, may well have lost it for the longer term.
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Mervyn Disapproves

The main Bank of England fa├žade, c. 1980.Image via Wikipedia

It is truly extraordinary that Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, described our deficit as truly extraordinary. But Mr King is a level headed man not given to histrionics. He is the quintessential banker, or at least he is a quintessential banker from the days when bankers were quiet and conservative men not given to being demonstrative. That such a man is now feeling it necessary to opine quite so often on the state of the public finances tells us a great deal and a great deal more than Gordon Brown will be comfortable with.

Gordon Brown made a fool of himself at PMQs today. His insistence on his phoney spending figures looks more and more absurd every time he reads out his latest list of highly selective numbers chosen to confuse rather than illuminate. His Cabinet is uncomfortable with his version of events and now the government's bank manager has spoken of his disquiet too. He has been rumbled and yet he continues all the same. This should make us fear for the future. Brown seems capable of anything.

The Prime Minister's parroting of the figures is much the same as his mismanagement of the public finances as a whole. From early on his chancellorship, once he abandoned the spending plans of the previous Conservative government, he set us on the road to where we are now. Over a decade he entrenched a level of public spending and borrowing whilst convincing himself that he was being prudent and that he had golden rules to prevent profligacy. Then he started to find ways to fiddle his own rules. Now he has abandoned them completely. This government has lost control of the public finances. That Brown continues to talk of how he will boost spending in the coming years beggars belief. The prospect of him remaining as First Lord of the Treasury (the Prime Minister's other title) for another year is terrifying. What further damage can he inflict in his desperation to cling on to power?

The Conservatives are quite right that spending must be cut. They were also quite right at the last election when they proposed to increase spending at a slower rate. Brown ludicrously called this cuts at the time. Now such an approach has been vindicated. We would not be in the mess we are in now had a more level headed approach prevailed. Instead we are all going to have to pay for Brown's pig headed profligacy for a generation through higher taxes and lower growth.

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