Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Service Interrupted

This will be my last post for a few days. I am in the process of moving and setting up new phone lines and internet connections. Back some time in early August.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Ode to Ryanair

Ryanair Boeing 737-800 in Berlin-Schönefeld, n...Image via Wikipedia

4.2 million people have seen this video of Dave Carroll, a hitherto unknown country singer, bemoaning the service of United Airlines who broke his guitar. Good for him. Not only has it given his career a huge boost, it has forced the formerly recalcitrant airline into obeisance.

So why has nobody done the same to Ryanair? Surely someone somewhere should be writing an opera about this hateful, penny pinching, curt, sly, underhand and downright unpleasant company? How did they become so successful? Sure I know they are efficient and well run in the purest economic sense, but the customer could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Their various schemes for extracting as much money as possible from the unsuspecting are legion and they are entirely unapologetic about them.

This is an airline which flies to airports that are miles from where passengers think they are going, charges passengers to book and check in , charges them to take a pee, charges them if they make a slight mistake when booking, gives them lower than usual baggage allowances so that they can charge extra for that too. For all I know they charge people for walking on the cracks in the pavement.

It isn't as if they are that cheap. Once all of their sneaky extras are taken into account it is often no more expensive to fly with a full service airline such as BA which treats passengers like passengers and not inconvenient and annoying cash cows.

I have vowed never to fly with them. Frankly I would rather stay at home here in rain swept blighty. Let's write a musical about them full of tragedy, treachery and (optional extra) sick bags. This ain't over until the fat lady sings. And when she does Ryanair will be charging her extra.
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Tweet to Who?

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...Image via CrunchBase

I don't see the point of Twitter at the best of times, although I concede that it did come into its own during the Iran crisis. But ultimately that was just because Twitter represented a convenient method of communication that the authorities could not prevent. For once these Tweets were important and interesting. It had never happened before and will never happen again. Tweets are inherently inconsequential and trivial. It seems to be the attraction.

But I honestly cannot see the attraction of knowing the thoughts or activities of people dozens of times a day, unless they happen to be making history. If they are one would assume that they have better things to do or that describing it will take considerably more than 140 characters. I know we are living in an age obsessed with trivia and gossip and that Twitter has taken off because various celebs have condescended to communicate their every thought and movement to the masses. But surely the fact that they have so much time to Tweet means that their lives are too empty to be of interest?

Anyway, like the internet and other 'cool' sites like Facebook before it, Twitter is now attracting the attentions of politicians. The government has published a strategy for Tweeting, recommending that ministers Tweet 2 to 10 times a day as part of their communication objectives. Who in god's name would want to read such missives other than political anoraks like me, journalists looking for a story and other member of the Westminster village? If they think that this is a way to make themselves look up to date, cool and groovy then first of all they are still living in the sixties and still using that decade's parlance, but more than that they are kidding themselves. The sort of people who are obsessed by Twitter are the sort who like celebrity gossip and news about strangers' love lives. Are they likely to be interested in the latest government strategies on becoming ever more nannyish and intrusive?

If one were to be charitable about this, it is at least a communications strategy that is cheap. If it were to be used instead of all of those leaflets, brochures, spin doctors and expensive adverts I would be more inclined to approve. I imagine however that they will probably be creating a well remunerated head of Tweeting role. This is self evidently an attempt to make a dying government look relevant and up to date. Unfortunately, the moment they published a 20 page document and strategy about it, they rather undid this impression.
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Funeral for a Mouse

A true classic. Watch it here and enjoy.

Panic or Complacency

The Brick Road's spiral origins in the 1939 filmImage via Wikipedia

The world is currently in the middle of a collective nervous breakdown over swine flu for reasons that remain unclear. There have been a few deaths it is true, all tragic on an individual level but scarcely surprising. Essentially however this is a mild disease which, were it not for all of the hype, we would have just shrugged off. Those afflicted would have been given sympathy and paracetamol and we would have got on with worrying about the recession again.

Instead, in this health and safety obsessed age, the government has gone into overdrive and is setting up systems which cannot possibly be justified. They are handing out anti virals as though they are sweets and indulging their nannyish tendencies to their zenith. What they should have done was simply said, 'this is a mild form of flu. If you are unlucky enough to get it, stay at home, take paracetamol, go to bed if necessary, consult your doctor if you get complications.' Job done.

All of the procedures and planning was for bird flu - a much nastier disease. So why are they expending so much time, energy and money on this? What would happen if we got a double whammy and bird flu suddenly emerged in a form able to infect humans? They have been planning for this eventuality and so presumably it could happen at any time. Instead they are expending our scarce resources on an outbreak that, though of pandemic proportions, is mild and largely unthreatening. All of their planning scenarios are speculative and highly unlikely.

All of this is happening because ministers, instead of showing leadership, are terrified of being accused of doing nothing. Yet nothing, or at least very little, is precisely what they should have done. They should have treated this as just another outbreak of seasonal flu, albeit a more widespread one. By turning it into a potential crisis it is becoming a self fulfilling prophesy. Worse, by handing out Tamiflu for no good reason, they risk turning this virus into something much worse and harder to handle. When the history of this government comes to be written, this will be seen as one of their greatest follies, albeit a folly that the opposition parties have been complicit in.

And amidst all this ridiculous hyperbole and panic, it turns out that the world will soon be at much greater peril from other much more deadly diseases than we had hitherto thought. According to The Washington Post, the American Department of Homeland Security - a department that is not ironically named so far as I can gather - is planning to relocate an infectious diseases study centre to a notorious tornado prone area of Kansas. The centre is currently located on a remote island of Long Island. Now, after congressional lobbying for this nice, juicy government contract, it is to head to the mid west, where one twister out of place could see a few deadly pathogens out and on the loose and heading down the yellow brick road to international chaos. Panic or complacency - it seems that there is no middle way with modern government.
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Summer Fun

Lightning over the outskirts of Oradea, Romani...Image via Wikipedia

I looked out of my window this morning on a lovely summer scene. The sun was shining, it was warm and bright. On the large grass area by my home, children on their school holidays, as part of what is presumably one of those clubs they attend while their parents are at work, were playing various games, laughing and shrieking and expending energy instead of sitting at home playing video games.

Fortunately the organisers, presumably acting on the Met Office's barbecue summer prediction, had had the good sense to erect a small tent for shelter.

What followed was a kind of mini storm of biblical proportions. The skies darkened. In the middle distance, normally visible from my high vantage point, well the middle distance disappeared behind a curtain of haze. The wind howled, the rain viciously lashed at them like a vengeful killjoy. At one point it seemed to be coming down nearly horizontally rather than vertically. All it lacked was a loud crack of lightning to convince us all that the world was about to end.

And then five minutes later it was all over. The sun re-emerged as eventually did the kids, poking their heads out from behind the tent flap, looking a little damp and fearful. They're playing again now but not with quite the same exuberance, constantly looking to the south west and wondering when the next mini hurricane will be along.

Those who wish to explain British stoicism and our sense of humour need only look at scenes like this. It's hammered into us from an early age.
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Sunday, 26 July 2009

Reform Not Cynicism

Seat of powerImage by .craig via Flickr

The desperation of Labour is becoming ever more obvious. Toby Helm in The Observer reports that ministers are seriously considering holding a referendum at the same time as the general election asking whether we should change our electoral system from first past the post. This, they believe, will expose David Cameron and the Conservatives as being opposed to reform.

Is this the best they can do? This is beyond cynical. This is a government that has been in power for 12 years and which has consistently and persistently refused to introduce any meaningful reform which would have reduced their own powers. This is a Labour government, a Labour government that is full of unelected peers and still has no meaningful proposals for reform of the most indefensible part of our system.

There are flaws to the present first past the post system, of course there are. But no system is perfect. Labour were perfectly content with the present arrangements when they were winning and indeed ignored a report conducted at their behest by Lord Jenkins a decade ago into changing that system because they were so content.

If we are to change the system, is it a good idea to do so on a whim without the chance for a proper debate and purely based on party political advantage? It seems likely that, like every other ruse this cynical, desperate and clueless government comes up with, the public would see this for what it is.

This is intended not as some principled stance on making our system notionally fairer, but as a way of putting David Cameron on the backfoot. David Cameron's response should be simple: that Labour still don't get it. Anger over MPs expenses would not be solved by a change to the electoral system. The reason that MPs are retiring en masse is precisely because they fear that they will not be re-elected under the present system.

But most of all he should point out that this is a cynical tactic by a desperate government which he will oppose because there is not enough time prior to a vote for the issues to be considered properly and a full debate held. He should commit himself to a root and branch review of our entire system of politics and government. That should include consideration of a written constitution, democratic reform of the Lords and the possibility of a different electoral system for that house. It could even consider more far reaching and radical reforms such as directly elected governments and thus a separation of powers which would make Parliament less supine. That would address the problems in our system not what Labour is proposing.

The one clear cut commitment to reform Cameron could and should make now, as part of his manifesto, is that his first act as Prime Minister would be to introduce fixed term Parliaments. On his first day he would announce the date of the next general election to be held in May or June four years hence. That would be real reform. It would prevent governments clinging on desperately as this one is. It would prevent such cynical last minute manoeuvres as this. It would bring this country into line with the rest of the democratic world.

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Saturday, 25 July 2009

All The World's A Stage

Glenn MillerGlenn Miller via last.fm

I've always thought that the world would be a better place if we could all break into song and dance at key moments in our lives just as they do in musicals. This should especially be the case at weddings and indeed funerals. I have specified to my nearest and dearest that my funeral should be a joyous event. When my coffin descends towards the roaring flames I want Glenn Miller's In the Mood ringing out as a kind of fanfare for my departure from this mortal coil.

Similarly, if I ever persuade someone to marry me, something that is not looking terribly likely at the moment and has been rendered even less likely this very weekend, I would like to turn it into a big song and dance number. Take a look at this wedding for instance. Now that is how it should be done.
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Denise Lewis

Usain Bolt after 200 mImage by thor_matt83 via Flickr

How nice to see the lovely, gorgeous and all round fabulous Denise Lewis as part of the BBC's athletics coverage. She's been dabbling in TV for a while now, occasionally doing local tv and radio and other gigs. Now she has gone national and not before time. Unfortunately my blogging software can't find any pictures of her I can use, which is a tragedy.

With the Olympics coming up in London in 2012, Denise deserves to be part of the coverage. I shall always remember her reaction when London was awarded the games. She was at the announcement, resplendent in her smart brown suit, but leapt up and down, bouncing in delight as though she had just won a gold medal. It's become an iconic Olympics moment for me, almost as much as seeing Usain Bolt stroll to his gold medal and world record.

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Telling It Like It Is

Picture of w:Jeremy Clarkson, on the set of w:...Image via Wikipedia

Jeremy Clarkson, talking to the Top Gear audience during a section which was never intended for broadcast, has called Gordon Brown a c**t. This is regarded in some quarters as controversial. Why? He didn't say it on TV. He said it in front of an audience of adults who went to the show perfectly well aware that Mr Clarkson has certain trenchant views which he is not shy about airing.

But more to the point he is only saying what the rest of the country thinks and what they are saying in their living rooms everytime the c**t appears on television and lies to us about public spending, holding elections, not knowing about smears or sacking his Chancellor.

Every time he tells us that he is getting on with the job, expletives pour out from the nation to the effect that 'we don't want you to get on with the ****ing job, you ****; we didn't elect you, you stole the job after we were told we were getting Tony Blair for a full term. You have ruined the economy and are spending money you don't have but which we will have to pay back to save your own skin. You talk b******s about investment and c**p about not cutting spending when in fact your policies mean that soon nearly 10% of all public spending will be on debt interest. You are in power just because you think you have a god given right to be in power. Yet you have no idea what to do with your power other than hang on for dear life praying that something will come along and save you. You are like a desperate gambler praying for a big win to save you. The difference being that you are gambling with our money. When you talk about your Presbyterian conscience the word c**t suddenly becomes hopelessly inadequate.'

Apparently, when Clarkson used the C word about our Prime Minister, the audience laughed. They should have given him a tumultuous round of applause and cheering. We live in a democracy and yet the Prime Minister won't listen. We have endless opinion polls telling him that he has the support of less than a quarter of the electorate. He has been humiliated in a string of elections including the European elections last month in which his party got less than a fifth of votes and was outpolled by UKIP. He refuses to call an election and has denied us a referendum we were promised. He's even refusing to move the writ for a by election in Glasgow North East because he fears the result.

What other recourse do we have in the face of this level of delusion, arrogance and obstinacy? We know he is going to have to bow to the inevitable eventually and call that election. There is no need for us to take to the streets to demand justice as they have done in Iran recently. But that doesn't make it any less frustrating that we are governed by a man who is not listening and who is doing the political equivalent of putting his fingers in his ears and singing la la la. Our only recourse is to use foul language, something he is fond of doing himself. He should think himself lucky we can't get close enough to throw a mobile phone at the c**t.
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Friday, 24 July 2009

Andrew Mackinlay

Palace of Westminster - Clock Tower and New Pa...Image via Wikipedia

I noted earlier that Chloe Smith, the new MP for Norwich North as of today, may well be a foretaste of the sort of bright young things who will soon be filling the benches of the Commons after the next general election. The expenses scandal has seen the end of a lot of venerable and considerably less venerable Commons careers, including Chloe's predecessor, Ian Gibson. Ms Smith will be typical, I suspect, of the next generation. It will mean a sea change in British politics.

Today, courtesy of Iain Dale, we learn that one of the venerable figures of the Labour Party, Andrew Mackinlay, will also be joining the ranks of the retired. This will be a considerable loss to Parliament. Mackinlay is departing, not because he was caught up in the expenses scandal - quite the opposite - but because he, like many others, is disillusioned with the way that Parliament is changing in this new era. He is right to feel this way, although to his credit he has been an outspoken critic of some of the worst and most undemocratic excesses of this government and the behaviour of some of his Labour colleagues over the Gary Mackinnon case.

It remains to be seen what the new intake of MPs will be like. They may well refresh our politics and bring welcome new and modern attitudes on a range of subjects. But the next Parliament will be a poorer place at least for a while until the successors gain experience and become independent minded and unafraid to be principled like Andrew Mackinlay always was.
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New Conservatives

David Cameron is a British politician, Leader ...Image via Wikipedia

The result in Norwich North will have delighted the Tories and just deepened the depression of Labour MPs. They will try to spin this as about MPs expenses, but if that is the case then why have the people of Norwich elected a Tory?

There has been an expenses impact. The swing to the Tories is not quite as high as it was at Crewe and Nantwich, with the fringe parties doing well but not spectacularly so. But it was still the sort of swing that would give David Cameron a decent majority if repeated at a general election. The Conservatives, in a packed field, got just under 40% of the vote. That is a good performance, if not spectacular, but something they will be pleased with given the unusual, indeed unprecedented circumstances.

The big question for Labour is do they believe their own spin about this being a product of expenses, or they do they get real? This is an imploding government, with a Prime Minister in office but with no real power. He has become a figure of ridicule or open contempt. This is not mid term blues because we are not in mid term. The last two general elections had been held at this point in the Parliamentary term, and won handsomely.

One further reflection on Chloe Smith, the new MP for Norwich North who must now wait until October to take up her seat. She comes across as competent, intelligent and very bright. But she also comes across as one of those professional career politicians who are increasingly filling the benches on both sides of the Commons. She is probably typical of the new crop of MPs who will be taking up seats after the election. Bright and earnest they may be, but inspiring they aint.

Chloe Smith reminds me a great deal of Yvette Cooper. She has the same air of the school swot made good. They are competent, efficient but uninspiring. I always rather fancied Yvette Cooper too, although I always had to mute the sound so that I didn't have to listen to her exquisitely memorised prompt sheet answers to questions. I suspect that Chloe will go far, assuming that she wins her seat again at the general election. But I think she is a sign of a dangerous trend in British politics, a trend seen in New Labour and now soon to be seen amongst new Conservatives in a few months time.

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Tim Minchin

Tim Minchin performing onstage with his tradem...Image via Wikipedia

Every once in a while a performer comes along who makes you sit up and take notice. For some people that's the likes of Susan Boyle. Not for me. Lots of people can sing. It's hardly a rare talent. The Boyle phenomenon is largely down to the way she looks, or at least the way she used to look. The moment she had her hair done and put on some make up she probably undid half her appeal, although the nervous breakdown didn't help.

Tonight I've been watching the Australian comedian Tim Minchin. If you haven't seen him then make a point of doing so. He's one of those rare comedians who combines a comedic gift and a very original and individual style with being clever and well read. It makes for a special kind of comedy which particularly appeals to me - comedy that makes you think. What more can you ask?

Tim is also an accomplished pianist, rather like a male and more adult version of Victoria Wood. At times in fact he reminds me of the late, great Victor Borge. His songs are a good deal more subversive however and on subjects ranging from god or the lack of him, to the need to take canvas bags to supermarkets to his love for a rubber sex doll.

I haven't laughed so much for a long time. Highly recommended.
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Thursday, 23 July 2009

Voter Anger

Norwich North (UK Parliament constituency)Image via Wikipedia

The turnout in Norwich North is said to be very low. People are staying away, presumably in disgust at the MPs expenses scandal. It's an odd reaction I always think. Surely it would make more sense to spoil your paper or vote for a minor party?

Another odd thing is that voters are said to be angry with the political parties over expenses and yet simultaneously angry with the government for making the now departed MP, Ian Gibson, a scapegoat. Gibson was undoubtedly harshly treated when compared to others more congenial to the leadership. Yet he was guilty of abusing his expenses. The government decided to look tough and then Gibson gave them a headache by resigning on principle. They deserve to lose this election on the grounds of their cynicism alone. But the candidates of all parties are, by their very nature, unsullied by the scandal since they are not MPs. So how can electors take against the new candidates? It's difficult to reconcile these attitudes. It will be even more difficult to know how to read the result.

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One To Watch

Norwich North (UK Parliament constituency)Image via Wikipedia

It's the Norwich North by election today. The Conservatives are expected to win. It remains to be seen by what kind of margin. There are many reports of voters reacting with hostility to politicians of all parties in the wake of the expenses scandal.

Chloe Smith, the likely new MP this time tomorrow, will be the youngest member of the House of Commons when she eventually takes up her seat and will, apparently, be the first ever Chloe to sit in the house. She will also of course very likely only be there for a few short months before she has to go through the whole process again in a general election.

She and the Conservatives seem to have thrown everything they can at this election. I have had several e-mails from them inviting me to join them on the campaign trail. Sadly I was unable to oblige. I am genuinely sad. Ms Smith, in addition to being a fine, young, local candidate and an antidote, surely, to the cynicism the public has been reacting to, is also a great looking woman.

This is the sort of seat the Conservatives need to win if they are to form the next government. The size of their majority, albeit complicated by the expenses factor, will be of major interest. There is also a feeling that the LibDems are due to do badly which will be fascinating and revealing. They were least affected by the expenses issue and are usually the default protest party at by elections and so a bad result will be a real setback. If they do badly it can only be bad news. Labour of course are fairly certain of losing. The extent of their loss is one to watch and their likely performance is the reason that the people of Michael Martin's old constituency in Glasgow will be denied a by election which could and should have been held today as well.

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Rewriting The Bad Book

The Codex Gigas from the 13th century, held at...Image via Wikipedia

I'm not a big fan of some forms of modern art, but I could become a convert if there was more of the kind currently to be seen in Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art. A Bible has been put on display and next to it a container of pens with a notice inviting visitors who feel in some way excluded from that tendentious tome to write themselves into it.

The response has been less than reverent, with people expressing, often in very vivid ways, their disapproval of a book they consider to be in no way good. "Sexist pish" was one of the more temperate comments, others proclaimed their homosexuality proudly but wanted nothing to do with a god who is supposedly disappointed by this.

Christians are shocked by all of this apparently, one calling it a sign of a broken and lawless society. How so? They were invited to write on a bible and did so in emphatic terms. Those who lead their lives according to a book written in the middle ages by men with a power agenda are entitled to do so. But they can hardly be surprised if the sentiments within that book arouse anger and resentment in our more enlightened age.

I find the whole episode rather uplifting. If evidence were needed that we live in an increasingly secular age, this is surely it. The overwhelming feeling seems to be scepticism or even hostility to the Bible. People recognise it for what it is and feel free to say so in a free country. That is something to be celebrated.

Some have of course retaliated with the standard line that it is always Christianity that is targeted and not Islam. This of course is true. But that doesn't mean that the Bible should be given special protection just because other religions are more sensitive and more prone to extreme reactions if they are offended. This is not a playing field that can or should be levelled.

The Koran is if anything a more absurd and blatantly tendentious creation than the Bible. But Islam is at a point in its history that Christianity was at centuries ago. We have moved on to the point that we now tolerate different religions and viewpoints within what was once a Christian society. The same cannot be said for many Islamic countries. But that, ultimately, is to their detriment and not ours.

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Wednesday, 22 July 2009


The Palace of Westminster at night seen from t...Image via Wikipedia

I forgot this little snippet from the Prime Minister's press conference at lunchtime. He was asked why the voters of Glasgow North East cannot have a new MP, following the resignation and subsequent ennoblement of Michael Martin, when the people of Norwich North have been granted one.

Brown's response was dishonest, there is no other word for it. He blamed the fact that Parliament is now in recess which is such patent nonsense one can scarcely believe that he could bring himself to utter the words.

The people of Glasgow, in a poor and deprived area, are to be denied representation for five months because Gordon Brown does not want to be embarrassed about losing a safe seat in what should be his party's heartlands. Presumably he is putting it off until November so that the shock of defeat will not resonate prior to the party conference, thus sparking more coup attempts and rumours. Norwich North is a comparatively marginal seat and its loss will be endurable. Glasgow North East spells electoral disaster.

It's only a few weeks since all of the parties were talking the talk about democracy and reform. Now it's all gone quiet. The much trumpeted Parliamentary Standards Bill, which was always more about appearing tough than being serious about reform, has been for the most part dropped. Similarly, talk about Lords reform has gone very quiet. This is hardly surprising since the second most powerful man in the government is Lord Mandelson - proud possessor of a title as long as royalty and who sits on 35 out of 43 government committees. With that much power, having to bother himself with the problems of troublesome constituents would just take up too much of his time.

If they possibly can, all of the parties, or at least the two who stand any chance of forming the next government, will undoubtedly go quiet on the issue of reform if they can possibly get away with it. Fixed term Parliaments, written constitution, House of Lords reform? These were buzz subjects only a month or so ago. Now, as anger dissipates, it's all gone quiet.

They will soon start campaigning in earnest for our votes as the general election gets ever closer. We should ensure that their earnest words when they were in trouble are not conveniently forgotten - like the people of Glasgow North East.
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Ridiculous Reaction to the Sublime

TOKYO - JULY 22:  In this handout image provid...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The Moon has of course been much in the news for the last few days. It has obviously become accustomed to the limelight, because earlier today it hogged all of the light available and managed for a few minutes to eclipse the Sun.

A Solar Eclipse is of course one of the most astonishing, awe inspiring and beautiful sights (through the proper equipment) it is possible to witness. We are lucky enough to be living at a time when such eclipses are possible. With the Moon slowly moving away from us ( a fact that has been confirmed by equipment left behind by the Apollo missions - do you hear that conspiracy theorists?) they will eventually become less spectacular - that diamond ring effect will become history.

It always irritates me, as we see this astonishing and beautiful sight, or the massive scar on Jupiter discovered earlier this week by an Australian astronomer left there by some visitor to that planet which went too close and was sucked in, that people still react superstitiously to such events. Astrologers witter on about the profound impact it will have on all of our lives. People pray, light candles and cross themselves. Why? This is a natural event. It can be predicted months in advance and is testimony to the laws we all live by, that we cannot help but live by. It's all a matter of simple geometry.

But worst of all, and by the most grating of all, was when the Apollo 8 astronauts, as they saw for the first time that iconic image of the Earth rise above the Moon, chose to read as accompaniment, the opening lines from Genesis. The Bible is full of absurdities but Genesis is laughable. Yet these pioneers and scientists, men who were actively proving that we are a small and insignificant part of a vast, hostile but astonishingly beautiful universe, chose this as a commentary. It was astonishingly crass and inappropriate for people who were leading the way to the stars to quote such obtuse and infantile mumbo jumbo as their reaction to something so sublime.
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Different Venue, Same Lies

Gordon Brown and Alistair DarlingImage by Downing Street via Flickr

No PMQs today as our MPs have now gone off on their 3 month long summer break. Since the government are making it more difficult for them to hold second jobs, many will be twiddling their thumbs now for 82 days. One can't help wondering if a better answer to the MPs expenses scandal would have been for MPs to be encouraged to take up extra jobs to use up all of that spare time, doing work which would make them better informed about the real world. Then we could have simply abolished their entire expenses regime and told them to make do on their two salaries.

Gordon Brown today gave his monthly press conference instead of PMQs. It's a slightly more dignified occasion just because the yah boo element of the Commons is removed. It is also, to be fair, one of the better innovations of this government, albeit one that Brown has merely continued after Tony Blair.

But of course Brown doesn't answer the questions properly here any more than he does at PMQs. It was at these conferences that he claimed he was never going to call an election in 2007, or that Alistair Darling wasn't going to be removed as Chancellor.

Brown has stock answers to questions. This is true of all politicians to a certain extent. They have their pre-prepared lines and soundbites. The more able ones are however able to think on their feet. Brown either regurgitates the lines or delivers up statistics. There is no middle way.

What tends to happen is that the line gradually changes over time as his arguments are found out. This is what is happening over spending and public borrowing. The crude investment versus cuts line has been toned down now. But he still won't use the cuts word. That would be too humiliating. He'll never be able to keep this up through an election campaign, especially with the government releasing horrendous figures on tax income like yesterday.

Brown talks about having taken tough decisions. The opposite is in fact the truth. He is avoiding making them until after the election, or pretends not to have made them when they come back to bite him - as we are seeing with helicopter provision. Putting up the top rate of tax was not a tough decision. It will actually have been remarkably easy for him. Brown is adept at making the wrong decisions very quickly because he considers the politics of them and ignores the wider implications. It was a disastrous decision and should be reversed. It will actually end up costing money and not raising any.

Today he was once more challenged over those helicopters for Afghanistan, but is still insisting that there are enough. Yet at the same time he tells us that more are being sent later in the year. If there are enough now, why are more needed later in the year once the present major offensive will be winding down?

Oh and Brown claims that "everything I do is informed by honesty and integrity". There, I told you yesterday that he was a comedy genius. I think that neatly rounds off this Parliamentary session, delived with his usual panache by the man in the Number 10 bunker. Let's just hope he takes a holiday now, not because he deserves it but because we do.

Just go away Gordon. Go back to Scotland perhaps for a break. Buy yourself a new calculator and go over the figures again. See if you can find your Presbyterian conscience, as it seems to have either gone missing or is malfunctioning.
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Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Comedic Leaders

PM and Pakistan President outside Number 10Image by Downing Street via Flickr

The Pakistani President, Asif Zardari, has banned jokes about him transmitted by electronic means under a new cyber crimes act. Perhaps our own government has considered similar action. They have enough laws on the statute book and are very keen on databases. I'm expecting a knock on the door soon for having called the great leader any number of names over recent months. The difference was that I wasn't joking. Presumably Vince Cable will be able to get away with his Mr Bean remark by claiming Parliamentary privilege.

They would be best to hesitate if they are thinking of emulating such draconian measures here though. We Brits are fond of our jokes about our leaders. It is a great tradition. More than that though it could seriously damage the economy. Dozens of publications, blogs and websites would quickly go out of business and journalists and other writers would have to find proper jobs. In Pakistan, the government had to abandon a proposed tax on text messages as it would have ruined the telephone companies. With this in mind, perhaps Gordon's claims to be saving our economy are not so far fetched after all. He may have loaded us up with debt that we will be paying off for decades and created the banking regulatory system which allowed the crisis in the first place but you have to admire the way he defends the indefensible with such a straight face. Let's be fair - the man is comedy gold.
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What is Normal?

pregnant silhouetteImage by mahalie via Flickr

Is the advice to pregnant women contradictory? Well, they are being told that they should carry on as normal but that they should avoid crowds. So pretty much QED for the contradictory crowd then, unless pregnant women are at home, never go out, never go shopping, don't work, or live on a Hebridean island.

People are reacting to this media driven crisis with remarkable sang froid for the most part. Where there is confusion and worry it is usually where children are involved - either born or unborn. This is hardly surprising. The headlines about a young and healthy girl dying along with a woman who had just given birth have alarmed people. This is a product of our 24 hour media age. Ultimately there probably isn't much you can do about that. Mothers worry. It's what they are programmed to do. But it would help if the authorities gave a consistent message and a proper reflection of the risks for pregnant women if they continue as normal rather than seal themselves off from the outside world.
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Failing the Audit

National Audit Office (United Kingdom)Image via Wikipedia

Just 3 weeks ago, Gordon Brown was still insisting that his government would be able to keep spending more and more on public services while the Tories would cut. This is something that they have gone curiously quiet about more recently. Indeed Peter Mandelson has changed the tune entirely. Now Labour will have to cut, he tells us, in his oily tones, but Labour are the party that we should trust to do this in the most caring and responsible way.

Why the change of tune? Well, first and foremost because it was exposed as being utter nonsense and inept. More pertinently it was an egregious lie. They knew that spending was going to have to be cut but chose to say the opposite.

Now, over the last few days, the government has tried to sneak out a whole raft of figures which only go to show the depths to which this Prime Minister was stooping on a daily basis. The nation's finances are in an appalling state and he is very well aware of it. So much so that he is reduced to releasing the figures in this underhand and deceitful way in the hope that nobody notices. The tax take is down by a massive £32 billion. The National Audit Office has refused to sign off on the accounts of six government departments, including the Treasury itself. Gordon Brown's absurd, self defeating and ruinously expensive tax credit scheme is still not working properly and is losing millions through bad accounting.

Much of this information could have been released weeks ago. But of course that would have been inconvenient for our liar of a Prime Minister. Instead he holds them all back and releases them furtively and all in one go.

We have grown accustomed to this way of operating. The always cynical world of politics has been made doubly so by this government. But what is all the more astonishing is that Brown must have known how bad the finances were when he was claiming that he was going to be able to keep splashing the cash. Can anybody be that cynical or is it a delusion?

Yet every time they pull one of these stunts it just makes them look more dishonest and more disreputable. Do they honestly think that their argument about being the best party to implement the cuts that they themselves have made vital whilst claiming the opposite will be bought by the public? It is they who have lost control of our finances. It is they who are living in denial about it and trying to hide the facts. It is they who are even reduced to massaging the figures on equipment levels for our troops, equipment levels that have cost lives.

This is a desperate and hopeless government. Each week, as they plumb new depths, we wonder what else they can possibly contrive to get wrong and each week they managed to surprise us and appal us in equal measure. Tomorrow is the last day of one of the more memorable parliamentary sessions for all of the wrong reasons. It can't come soon enough. Unfortunately, as things stand, they will all be back with the same man in charge in 82 days time.
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Monday, 20 July 2009


断定の助動詞「だ」「じゃ」「や」の分布図。 Zones map of Japanese co...Image via Wikipedia

There are some very funny and clever adverts on tele at the moment. I'm particularly fond of the Churchill adverts and comparethemeerkat.com.

But what in god's name is going on with that advert for Oasis and the Rubberduckzilla? Don't get me wrong, I can watch as many Japanese girls in micro skirts as they can fit on the screen. But what kind of substance were they smoking, inhaling or injecting when they came up with that as a concept?
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Damian Repents

_MG_8464Image by The CBI via Flickr

We always knew it was going to happen. Damian McBride has re-emerged and is beginning the process of softening us all up for his return to the political world. Am I being cynical? Maybe. But I don't think so.

Like the spin master that he undoubtedly is, McBride has decided on his message and is now delivering it with the remarkable consistency and discipline for which he was renowned. Why? Is it just because he wants to get his side of the story out. Possibly. But he isn't really putting his side of the story. This is designed, not as a defence, but as a mea culpa. He is holding up his hands, admitting his guilt, calling it a ghastly mistake, insisting that Gordon was as shocked as the rest of us (speechless with rage apparently - did he throw a phone?) and inviting us all to forgive him. Why would be be doing this now, three months on, if he wasn't preparing the ground for a return?

One of the few things that Gordon Brown has got right over this last year was his astonishing gamble of bringing back Peter Mandelson, the twice resigned and disgraced former Cabinet minister and his former bitter enemy. It has been a triumph. Mandelson, by common consent, saved Brown and is now his effective deputy. Furthermore, it will not have escaped their attention that David Cameron saved his own spin meister Andy Coulson last week. Their defence was that they had given this errant man a second chance. Number 10 will be only too keen to use the same line about McBride. What can the Tories say?

Now, after a decent interval, McBride will be forgiven and given another chance. He will claim to have had an epiphany and to have mended his ways. He is already claiming in the interviews that he couldn't believe what he had done, and of course taking all of the blame for this terrible aberration. By spinning this story at the start of the summer recess, when little else is going on, they have ensured good coverage but not too much forensic analysis.

Come the autumn, McBride will be shuffled quietly in through the back door of Downing Street ready to start the election campaign. Gordon Brown's Presbyterian conscience has told him to give a sinner another chance just as he did the prince of darkness last autumn. Of course he also promised Labour MPs that he would change his ways just a few weeks ago when he was pleading for his job. I doubt anyone took this too seriously at the time. Anyway, he will soon have his attack dog back at his side. Any new coup attempt will have an added factor to contend with come the autumn.
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