Saturday, 31 October 2009

Tweet To Who?

Apparently the Twitterer in chief, Stephen Fry, has threatened to quit Tweeting because someone, a fellow Brummie (that's fellow to me, not Stephen obviously who is as far removed from being a Brummie as it is possible to imagine) by the name of BrumPlum was mean to him. Brum Plum, otherwise known as Richard, aged 47, described Fry's output as 'a bit boring'.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, for I do not Tweet, Twitter or even Twit, but isn't that the sort of raison d'etre of Tweeting? Isn't its banality and humdrumness part of the appeal? I mean sure it came into its own during the Iran crisis earlier this year, but for the most part it is used by people to expound in just 140 characters on their every movement, their every thought. How can it be anything but dull? Life just isn't that good and frankly it would be exhausting if it were.

And though I regard the phenomenon of Tweeting as pointless and ridiculous and a fad which will die as surely as one day will Katie Price's 'career', it is in some respects a leveller. You see, no matter how rich and famous you are you will inevitably lead to some extent a humdrum life because that is the nature of things. However rich you are, however successful you still have to make tedious journeys, you still have to go through the same body motions, you still have to live in a world in which Dale Winton and Chris Moyles are popular successful and well paid entertainers.

Twitter is proof of this. If someone as urbane, clever, witty and well read as Stephen Fry is reduced on occasion to writing about the inadequacies of his printer or about being stuck in a lift then he is really no different to the rest of us. Indeed it is a pity that Ms Price and other celebrities of her ilk do not Tweet. Because, believe it or not, she and the rest of the Z listers are the same as us, it's just that for some reason some people like to read about them ad nauseum. If only they Tweeted every quarter hour about their glamorous lives even the most avid of celebrity watchers would be cured of their curious modern affliction.

So don't feel bad Stephen. Keep on Tweeting if it makes you happy. Every time you do it just reaffirms you as a man of the people.

Breaking Up The Banks

The Telegraph is reporting that Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, is to announce this week that RBS and Lloyds Banking Group are to be broken up. This will no doubt be spun as the government getting tough with the banks and being on the side of the taxpayer and the consumer by getting our money back and introducing more competition. In fact this is a decision which is being forced on them by Europe. Quite why our banking arrangements have anything to do with Europe is something I fail to understand but then these days we can't even sell domestic television rights for a football competition without consulting Europe. But then that is a separate argument which I shall undoubtedly be coming back to.

More competition is of course welcome and necessary and getting our money back ought to be non negotiable. But the huge Lloyds Banking Group in particular is a creation of this government during last year's crisis. It is a monolithic creation which should never have taken place, particularly as in so doing they ruined the previously profitable and well run Lloyds TSB. To now try and take credit for breaking it up again is astonishing. I argued at the time and consistently that the merger between Lloyds and HBOS should never have taken place. Now, only a few months later, instead of unravelling that merger they are to sell off those parts that were part of the old Lloyds TSB whilst keeping the much larger HBOS as part of the enlarged Lloyds. And they think we should give them credit for doing so.

RBS should be broken up and indeed they could and should have announced this months ago, again as advocated here. This is not to say however that any of these deals should be going ahead now. How can a recession be a good time to be selling off anything? Just as when the government announced the sale of those assets a couple of weeks ago, the timing is everything to with the electoral timetable and nothing to do with good governance.

This is another example of the government being desperate to be seen to be doing something and presumably is an attempt to distract us from the fact that the banks are making big profits again and paying out bonuses. Selling off the assets of these banks is the right thing to do. Doing it now is emphatically not.

Show Me Your Licence

Halloween today. I've always found it strange and ironic that the god fearing US of A has taken so enthusiastically to this pagan rite and turned it into the strangest of public festivals.

And now we have to suffer it too. I blame ET. Seriously. You can more or less date the British starting to celebrate, for want of a better term, this silly and pointless festival every year from the time when we saw it in one of the most popular and successful films of all time back in 1982. This is why I as a child never went around pestering neighbours for treats on pain of tricks. It is a modern phenomenon and a classic example of cultural imperialism.

Oh I know that All Hallows Eve originally came from Britain, but that was about robust things like hunting down and killing witches and other silly superstitions and not about dressing up as them or various other figures from lore. And it certainly wasn't about demanding gifts with menaces.

The question is though, how did it first take off here? Who decided it was a good idea and what was the reaction of their neighbours at being roused from their sofas by young children dressed as ghosts and ghouls demanding confectionery? Did they call the police? Did they call social services fearing some form of child abuse?

And how is this irritating but essentially harmless annual ritual going down with the authorities? These are the same authorities, lest we forget, that demand criminal records clearance for parents babysitting their friends' children, driving them to school and playing with their own children in a childrens' playground. Why isn't Halloween licensed? Surely those of us whose doors are going to be knocked on should display some form of official document ensuring the world that we are fit and proper to dispense sugar coated treats? I for one shall not be opening my door to any young revellers just in case, as a single and childless man, I am accused of trying to lure them with saccharine temptation. You can't be too careful these days.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Bad Advice

The modus operandi of this government, and in particular of Gordon Brown, has long been to send off any difficult or potentially controversial decisions to outside agencies or so called experts and then blame them for the flak. The trouble is that such experts have a tendency to then take their remit seriously and make decisions based on evidence and without reference to politics.

The examples are legion. NICE was set up to allow decisions about drugs and treatments to be taken in an impartial way by doctors and other experts. But then they decided that certain drugs and treatments shouldn't be available to cancer sufferers on the grounds that such drugs were just a stall and that they were spectacularly expensive. Thus Labour ministers started getting involved.

Today the Home Secretary, that nice Alan Johnson, sacked an expert on drugs, Professor David Nutt, for saying things which, according to the evidence and his own experience, were perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately that advice ran counter to government policy. It's a funny way to do government. Of course it's not just a British phenomenon. Barack Obama is currently umming and ahhing and, it has to be said, dithering about Afghanistan. The advice from the military experts is clear and unambiguous. It's damned inconvenient politically however.

But even better and hilariously, earlier this week various scientific advisers on climate change opined that all of the exaggeration and hype about potential future catastrophes were silly and counter-productive. I doubt this was welcome to Gordon Brown who is intent on saving the world from those catastrophes. That's the trouble with science. It doesn't understand nuance. That's why various green meanie pressure groups ignore it or at least read between the lines and why Al Gore made that famous film of his by concentrating on hyperbole. It puts bums on seats and wins awards you know.

Don't Let Them Get Away With It

Another day, another shameless MP pretending to be apologetic and getting off in a way that looks to the rest of us to be remarkably lightly. Tony McNulty, the ex Home Office minister, apologised to the House of Commons yesterday in a manner that was very nearly as insincere as that of his former boss, Jacqui Smith. His offence was just egregious and just as obviously wrong as hers was. For anyone else in any other walk of life it would have been regarded as fraud and he would have been fired and possibly prosecuted. Not McNulty though. He has friends in high places.

It is going to have to fall to the electorate to give these miscreants the good kicking they all deserve. Those who have the temerity to stand again at the general election (and be in no doubt that the likes of Smith and McNulty will do so having made their so called apologies) will be doing so only a few months since this scandal broke. Public anger is still raw.

But more than that it is going to have to fall to the press and the blogosphere right up until that election to keep their names in the limelight. They think that we will forget. I for one will be putting their names and the details of their stolen money on this site during the campaign and on election day. I suggest all bloggers and newspapers do the same.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Sick Man of Europe Again

The country which, according to Gordon Brown, was to blame for taking us all into recession (that is apart from when he is brown nosing its president) has now come out of that recession. More than that America has now put on a quite healthy looking spurt of growth, the same sort that our government were telling us we would now be enjoying. Instead, alone amongst the leading economies, Britain remains in recession.

Guido had this excellent scoop earlier today about the Labour strategy for this week. Gordon Brown was going to pose as the wise head who had dragged us out of recession by keeping spending and rescuing us once again and parrot once more his lines about George Osborne and the do nothing Tories. Unfortunately the economy did not do as it was told. Worse we are, once again under Labour, the sick man of the world economy and labouring under a debt that Brown is showing little enthusiasm about cutting.

It may be worse still. It may be that what little recovery we have seen (and things are not as bad as six months ago) could be largely down to quantitative easing. I have my doubts about this but many think it is all that is saving us from heading into depression. When eventually this has to stop we could be in big trouble. If we're very lucky the fact that the rest of the world is now emerging from recession and American consumers are spending again will drag us out too. But it will have nothing to do with the policies of Gordon Brown and will come too late for him anyway. The last desperate strategy of a desperate and lost government has disappeared today.

Presidential Decree

So, according to The Times, Tony Blair would be prepared to become the first president of Europe - provided that the role is a substantial one. How noble of him. How nice to know that he will be willing to give up his various post prime ministerial roles and the substantial earnings he is currently enjoying, if the old political pals act that is the European Union is willing to massage his ego and give him a role he thinks is suitably meaty. How lovely for him that the man booted out by his party and generally loathed in his home country, will be able to avail himself of the kind of patronage he once deployed in Downing Street in order to get a role about which we, the poor mugs who pay for this travesty, will have no say.

Oh and is this not the same Tony Blair who told the British people that we did not need a referendum to ratify the treaty which will create this role because it was a mere tidying up exercise? Yet now it is apparently a sufficiently flexible document to enable the various leaders to create a role that will be deemed desirable and suitable for a man of Blair's clout. And they wonder why we don't believe a word they say.

And of course they say that this president, if and when created, will just be a kind of chief bureaucrat - a man or woman required to chair meetings and clock up the air miles. Yet the very fact that they are considering Blair gives the lie to that claim. It proves what many of us have been claiming: that this treaty/constitution is a substantial building block towards a super state which they are too afraid to argue for. The president and the new foreign minister of the EU are the next step towards that. A figure like Blair would inevitably be powerful and indeed is insisting on this as part of his job description. Once in place he would start accruing even more. He might even get the Blair Force One he has long wanted.

Now I am not, as I have frequently written here, instinctively hostile to the idea of a federal Europe. I can see the advantages. What infuriates me and people like me is the dishonest and underhand way that this is being created. The Lisbon Treaty creates these roles but also allows the EU to continue to take powers without the need for these annoying and inconvenient new treaties. If a federal Europe is such a good idea, then why can't they argue for it honestly and openly and create it from scratch with proper robust institutions befitting its role instead of the ones created for when it was just a trading agreement? And would a bit of democracy be a bad thing? Why can't we elect this vital new president, or is he there just to do the tidying up?

But the main reason that Tony Blair should not even be considered for this role is because he betrayed the British people who are already sceptical of the whole European project. We were promised a referendum on this treaty and he then shamelessly reneged on that pledge. If he were given this role he would be profiting from his own deceit and treachery.

The Conservatives are already making noises about their hostility and they are right to do so. If Gordon Brown is willing to allow his old sometime friend and enemy to put his name forward for this then he really is pursuing a scorched earth policy in his final months. We have grown accustomed to the cynicism and disdainful approach to democracy of this government under both of its leaders. This would be the final straw.

Climate Sense Needed

May I commend this piece by Bill Emmott in today's Times to you on the subject of climate change, Copenhagen and the Green Meanies. Mr Emmott recommends a more honest approach to the subject with less hyperbole and warnings of imminent catastrophe. And he isn't even one of we evil denialists.

Until politicians start standing up to the Green Meanies and see through their agenda we are never going to get any sense on this subject and, more importantly, the public will never swallow what is being proposed. We can all see sense in protecting our environment, we can all see sense in protecting rain forests and fish stocks. But the ridiculous hair shirt demands of the worst of the GMs are just alienating people. Can they not see that, or are they so burnt up with their arrogant, self righteous demands that they cannot see sense?

The lies, hyperbole and propaganda are backfiring on the GMs and yet they keep on pumping out their silly reports and their predictions of doom. It's ultimately self defeating. Their only consolation will be that when they don't get what they want and people yawn and change channels they will be able to plan a few more demonstrations and pickets and lambast the rest of us for our stupidity. It seems to make them happy like those proselytizing street preachers who get ignored or laughed at but know they will be vindicated when judgement day comes and the rest of us are burning in hell.


Wednesday, 28 October 2009

A Thousand Words


They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well a new book just published by National Geographic proves it pretty definitively. This is my favourite. It is just so haunting and unforgettable and one can't help wondering what happened to this Afghan girl in that most brutally conservative of countries. There are plenty of other pictures, 450 in total across 512 pages. You can see some more samples here.

Sandwiched by the Green Meanies

God almighty our press are naive and stupid. Yesterday we were told by a so called climate change authority, Nicholas Stern, that we should all stop eating meat to save the planet. Today a report by Friends of the Earth, which is of course bound to be objective, tells us that the price of bread is going to go up to £6.50 over the next 20 years. How do they know? Well they don't. It is speculation and hyperbole dressed up as science and economics. Yet of course it is reported uncritically by the press, in this case the Telegraph.

How did they come to this determination? Nobody bothers asking. It's just reported as fact because some academic has put their name to it. It would be nice if sometimes these 'reports' had some basis in reality rather than being shameless and frankly rather poor propaganda.

In fact it's a wholly unlikely scenario. CO2 is good for growing crops. Plants are rather fond of the stuff. It's why tomato producers pump extra CO2 into their greenhouses. But of course that doesn't make scary headlines does it. The science behind this will be almost non existent. It's guesswork and wishful thinking (if you happen to be a green meanie) dressed up as fact. Expect lots more of it over the coming weeks before Gordon and his buddies head off to Copenhagen to save the world.


Hot Air at PMQs

You see? I told you just a few days ago that Gordon Brown is out to save the world again because we didn't seem to have paid enough attention the first time around. Sure enough he is now talking up Copenhagen and having his MPs ask him planted questions on the subject at PMQs so that he can big it up.

The trouble with this of course (even if you believe in AGW) is that Copenhagen will be long on rhetoric, long on distant and unachievable promises but woefully short of anything that will do what it says on the tin. Politicians the world over have bought the green meanies lines about us needing to cut CO2 to save the world. But, as they keep being told, to do so is impossible unless 3 billion of us commit hara-kiri - probably by jumping symbolically in front of a plane or SUV - and then go off to live in caves whilst living on vegetables at the recommendation of Lord Stern. It is probably because Barack Obama knows that Copenhagen will be a waste of time that he is now less keen on attending. He doesn't want to be associated with a vast talking shop which will achieve nothing.

Of course those who do attend will spin it like mad and probably look to Gordon to fiddle the figures as is his wont. But the promises made will be meaningless and cannot be delivered. Unless someone somewhere is going to implement an involuntary euthanasia programme to kill off all of those non-productive pensioners who keep turning the central heating up or head off to foreign climes on nasty planes to selfishly enjoy themselves, then our politicians are wasting their time. If you believe in all of this hype and tripe then the only viable solution is to look to engineer our way through climate change. It's what humans have been doing for our entire existence.

If Brown really is relying on Copenhagen as his big game changer then his desperation and state of delusion are there for all to see. Or maybe he is just looking forward to one last grandstanding international summit away from the petty concerns of the rest of us. At least if Obama doesn't turn up we will be spared the humiliation of seeing our prime minister chase him through kitchens to get a moment of his time.

PMQs today exposed just how bare the cupboard is for Brown. Since we are still in recession he cannot even lecture the Tories about economics. The fact that he still tried just makes him look arrogant and ridiculous. Embarrassed by yet another U turn, this time on funding for the TA, he brought out one of his oft repeated, pre-prepared lines about the Tories. He actually said, unprompted, that the Tories have the wrong policies for the recession - that's the recession we are still in as opposed to France and Germany. It wasn't so much an open goal as one with a giant target painted on it. Today he was forced to compensate for his lack of a coherent argument by shouting a lot more and reading out another one of those lists. But the fact is we are still in a recession he used to tell us he had abolished and for which we were best prepared.

And that is the fate of the man who was once said to be the clunking fist. He is looking increasingly ridiculous and hopeless. Cameron was on decent but not sparkling form today. Clegg was pretty hopeless. But the prime minister is flailing now. The recession figures of last week have removed his last hope of salvation. That narrative is gone however much he thunders about the Tories lack of policies. He is now reduced to talking hot air about hot air.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

A Stern Future

Not for nothing has the climate change hysteria movement been compared to a religion. They have all the fervour and self righteousness of the true religious obsessive and regard anyone who expresses even the mildest of doubts as a heretic.

But more than that they believe in and advocate things that are patently and demonstrably absurd. All of the cuts in emissions we are being told we must make and which politicians are promising are impossible. They are not difficult they are impossible. All of the supposedly green alternatives for generating power cannot possibly account for more than a tiny percentage of our energy needs. Yet still the true believers lecture us and tell us we must take action to head off this catastrophe. It's only a matter of time before they start speaking in tongues.

And now Lord Stern, he of the Stern report of last year which put some fantasy figures alongside the fantasy science, now tells us that we are all going to have to become vegetarians too. This is a serious suggestion. It's as though the entire movement has been brainwashed like members of a cult so that they spout this drivel and keep a straight face. When are they going to snap out of their mass delusion and get real?

On the other hand of course such absurdities are very useful in demonstrating to an already sceptical public just how deranged the green meanies have become on this issue. Copenhagen promises to be hugely entertaining.


Monday, 26 October 2009

The Real BNP

Over the weekend, and particularly on Sunday, there has been a rash of comment and articles about the BNP and last week's Question Time. People seem in general to be changing their minds about the whole programme and regarding the programme as a lynch mob out to get Griffin. In some examples of course writers are torn between their dislike of Griffin and his party and their equal dislike of the BBC. Now they have managed to find a new stick with which to beat the corporation. Yes, they say, it was right to put him on the programme but the way it was handled was wrong. The lynch mob approach, if such it was, made him in a victim.

This, the new emerging consensus seems to be concluding, is a bad thing, not necessarily because he doesn't deserve it (although presumably they think it best that the real lynch mob parading and often rioting out on Wood Lane, which would probably have killed him given the chance, was kept at bay by a massive police operation) but because it handed him a propaganda victory. The more thoughtful amongst the commentators regard the spectacle of unworthy of an exercise which was supposed to be about free speech.

Now I have a certain sympathy with this second viewpoint but not the first. Was it a propaganda victory? Well some regard the very fact that he was on television at all as that. Others panic at the news that a couple of thousand people have apparently joined the party. Even if this figure is true, and remember the BNP is not a party known for its veracity even if any political parties enjoy that reputation, then a couple of thousand people from an audience of 8 million for a party that has complained it has been shut out hitherto is scarcely a good result. It is statistically insignificant.

And the way Griffin was treated on the programme is hardly surprising. He is a man who deliberately and apparently joyously courts controversy. His smug visage on QT was proof of that. People are enraged by him and gave voice to their rage. He is never going to be a mainstream politician able to discuss the news agenda because of who and what he is.

We're told that the BNP will now be pushing for further such exposure including many more party political broadcasts at the election. They will be granted some but not all of what they desire. They are even asking to be included in the proposed debates presumably because they know their request will be (rightly) denied and enabling them to play the martyr again. It is bitterly ironic that this party of thugs, criminals and bully boys is complaining that its leader was the victim of bullying last week.

The fact is that the BNP got the exposure they wanted last week but were unavailable to get their message across. So what is that message? A friend received it through his letter box the other day in the form of a BNP newspaper. What are the headlines?

No compassion for terrorists - an article about Al megrahi's release on the front page alongside a picture of the downed PanAm plane in Lockerbie.

Harman in bid to water down child porn laws - Harman, we are told, has sickening views on child porn which is essentially a contrived story about legal definitions.

Immigrant Baby Boom costs over £1 billion

Mayor charged with underwear theft - this, according to the BNP, is an example of declining moral values.

Mohammed second most popular boys' name in Britain.

Police spend £70,000 a day on translation

Romanian workers to enjoy more rights

London Mosque has 20 year history of extemism

Convicted Islamic terrorists freed from jail early

Baroness Scotland and the immigrant housemaid

How Islamic colonisation destroys our heritage

Council spends £222,000 on ethnic body which bars whites

Faces of evil - a story about a criminal gang with accompanying mugshots - all black.

Boris urges Londoners to fast during Ramadan to understand Muslims

Do you get the general picture? Those are all genuine headlines from a BNP campaigning newspaper. That is the message that Nick Griffin wants to get across if allowed to do so. It is why his appearance aroused so much fury last week. I doubt that this is going to change any time soon and we should probably all be quite relieved by that.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

In Rafa We Trust

How good to see that, after all of the newspaper talk this week about a club in crisis, Liverpool did their talking on the pitch and against the old enemy too. It was a fighting performance, a spirited performance; and it was exactly the tonic everyone needed.

It's not that the Reds don't have their problems. The strength in depth is just not there as the substitutes bench showed again today. But some of the articles comparing the spending of Alex Ferguson with Rafa Benitez are ridiculous. They miss the rather important point that Ferguson has been at Old Trafford for a couple of decades and already had a title winning side at the start of Benitez's five years. He has since had to augment that side and has been able to do so by bringing in top class players for top prices. Rafa on the other hand had to completely rebuild the side. Yes he has spent a lot of money but only rarely has he been able to splash cash on big name signings for £20 million plus as has his opposite number. Today the game was won thanks to a superb goal by one of those big names signings who happens to be one of the best if not the best player in his position in the world - Fernando Torres. But another star performer was one bought for comparative peanuts - Yossi Benayoun.

Liverpool fans by and large still like and trust Rafa Benitez. They recognise that he has been hamstrung since the takeover by Gillett and Hicks and the vast debt they have accumulated with still no new stadium to enable us to keep up with United, Chelsea, Arsenal and now Manchester City. It is these two snake oil salesmen we want out, replaced by someone with the cash to plough into the club and the team. Benitez has done a fine job. Given a little more financial backing he could make days like today happen a lot more often. But this season is far from over. Liverpool have fought back from similar situations before in the Premier League and in Europe. This is the same side that came second last season, only losing two games. Today's result could be a springboard to a better season. But I would be lying if said I'm not hoping for some cash to be made available, preferably by a new owner, in January.

No Credit

And now, from the ministry of the bleeding obvious: The recession will be over by Christmas.

That's the message from Gordon Brown today. Thanks Gordon.

Of course even this is going out on a limb for the man who umms and ahhs over his choice of biscuits and then lies that he never heard the question. For the record I'm a choccie Hob Knobs man. See, Gordon? 5 seconds.

But presumably our dear leader calculates that he can only claim credit for the recovery if he tells us in advance it is going to happen. Also of course he has to say something given all of the ridiculous bombast about us leading the world when, as is now being revealed, we are very much following and presumably hoping that they will drag us with them. Unfortunately for Brown we were told in April that recovery should have started by now and was going to be such a strong bounce back as to make sense of their figures. Now it turns out that we are still in recession and that, though we probably will go a little into growth this quarter, it will be weak and barely noticeable.

Yet Gordon still insists that the supposedly coordinated international action he encouraged at that big meeting of G20 in April is what is doing the trick. Again, unfortunately for him, we were unable to join in with any coordinated action (such as it was) because our finances are so shot. Instead we have been reduced to creating money out of thin air. The unravelling of that policy is a disaster still to come, probably once Brown is long gone.

The only really coordinated action that is being taken around the world is the beggar thy neighbour approach of devaluing currency. It's why the pound is now around a third lower than a year ago. Yet even then we are still unable to recover as quickly as France, Germany and even Italy all of whom are doing so in a strong currency area.

Our prime minister is probably right that we will finally come out of this nasty recession/depression over the next few weeks. No doubt he will try to claim credit when we do. But, since he still refuses to acknowledge his own part in creating the disaster and indeed prolonging it once we were in it, I suspect the British public is unlikely to raise the three cheers he thinks he deserves.


Turn Back the Clocks

As of 2 am this morning Britain has gone back one hour to Greenwich Mean Time. You can see this fact reflected on my world clocks down there on the left.

Now every year at this time various newspaper columnists write about how silly it is that we voluntarily deprive ourselves of an hour of daylight time each evening. They talk about the increase in accidents which almost always happens when people suddenly find themselves travelling home in the dark after work.

The subject of Scotland usually comes up. Scotland, being all the way up there gets even darker than England and would have mornings which were dark until a time when it almost wasn't morning were it not for this annual exercise. But, opine those columnists, why do we both have to operate on the same time? Scotland has a different government (at least in part), a different legal system, different money, why not different time for six months of the year?

Well for a start it would be rather unusual for countries on the same longitude to exist in different time zones. For a second thing we are, at least for the moment, still the same country. Would it make much difference if England and Wales were on a different time during the winter? Probably not. But it would be symbolic of something. The SNP would love it.

And anyway I rather like Greenwich Mean Time. I don't know why. It's probably just the romantic in me. It has a resonance back to a time when Britain was still something in the world. Now it's just a time. There is an Oxford college which celebrates the return of GMT every year with a special ceremony. Maybe it's just an eccentricity - we British do love our ceremonies - but I know what they're driving at. British Summer Time smacks of something modern and joyless and utilitarian. It's like that bank holiday in May that Harold Wilson's government foisted on us years ago for no good reason. Greenwich Mean Time on the other hand is a reminder of a great British achievement, of science and mathematics. Okay it means darker evenings but then you can have lighter mornings. And anyway it makes the Scots a little less grumpy.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

A Principled Stand

Matthew Parris in his always excellent, erudite and thought provoking column in The Times has written of the week's events with particular reference to freedom of speech - the right of everyone to express an opinion, no matter how offensive some might find it, so long as they stay within the bounds of the law.

This last week this high-minded principle, as Matthew rightly points out, has been tested and some amongst us, even leading cabinet ministers for god's sake, were found wanting. The week started with that horrible column by Jan Moir. She was roundly condemned for it, by me amongst others and rightly so. But she has every right to air her opinions. They are by no means unique to her. She wrote what she did and, in our 24 hour interconnected world, her views were quickly repudiated and refuted by the blogosphere, the Twittersphere and the media as a whole. So far so good.

The problem starts when people start taking things further. Stephen Fry got involved and he encouraged his followers to complain. The language became angry and intolerant, as intolerant as Moir herself was accused of being. People started making complaints to the press complaints body the IPCC in a coordinated campaign.

It is here that I depart with them. Moir broke no laws. She expressed an honestly held if rather unpleasant opinion based on prejudice. But she has the right to say what she did, just as we all have the right to challenge her via her newspapers comment section, letters section and the hundreds of other avenues now available to us all. Thousands of people availed themselves of the opportunity, thus providing a wonderful example of how freedom of speech works for the benefit of us all.

The IPCC should reject the complaints. It should not be about silencing opinion. It should be protecting people from a prying and prurient press using unfair methods.

Then on Thursday we had the BNP/Question Time affair. Again someone with trenchant opinions, many based on prejudice and even bigotry was able to express them on a national forum for debate. But the fury this aroused had to be seen to be believed. Protesters tried to invade BBC Television Centre. Police officers were injured. A huge security operation had to be put in place costing thousands. And all because one fat man who also happens to be an elected MEP had been invited on to a TV programme and might say things of which some disapprove.

Now I hold with the opinion that the BBC was quite right to act as it did. Even if Griffin had given a smoother and more plausible performance it would still have been right. Opinions such as his need to be challenged not buried under a welter of legislation and oppression. His opinions cannot and will not stand up to scrutiny, but in order to show this they need to be scrutinised. Furthermore, in a free society, he has become moderately successful after years of such extremism barely surviving because there is a strong feeling of anger amongst people about some of the issues he talked about. Now the mainstream parties are going to have confront such issues, in particular immigration. Typically Jack Straw on QT tried to claim there was no problem - and they wonder why Labour voters are deserting them.

All too often in our society people with opinions that are regarded by some as objectionable are silenced. It doesn't have to be on issues such as race or immigration. Climate change is another area in which those who express scepticism are treated like pariahs or lunatics. Instead of challenging their ideas and opinions all too often they are attacked personally.

The reason that freedom of speech is so important is because it allows us to debate and challenge orthodoxies. It is a sign of a confident and mature society. It is why the internet is such a force for good, even those sites which propagate ridiculous conspiracy theories. Where once religions silenced critics by branding them as heretics we can now challenge and question their assumptions. That kind of oppression held back science for centuries.

This is why it is so important to stand up to those who try to silence critics by claiming to be offended. Science and ideas and yes even the science of climate, needs to be tested in debate. Ideas are what make us what we are. No ideas are sacrosanct. If they are good enough they will survive on their merits. For proof take a look at this excellent, illuminating and often hilarious debate between someone trying to prove that evolution does not exist and a scientist who has proven that it does. Much as Professor Lenski complains about having his time wasted I think he rather enjoyed himself in the end. His ideas were challenged and so he rose to that challenge. It's the sort of debate for which the phrase QED could have been invented. I only wish he had used it.

And that is why some of us are so passionate about freedom of speech. Humanity, if it is about anything, is about ideas and constantly testing and refining them. We can only do that if we can express them in the open. It's a principle that can sometimes lead to us hearing or reading things that we may find uncomfortable or objectionable. But the alternative is the stultified homogeneous uniformity on display in Nazi Germany, the former Soviet block or modern day North Korea. Freedom is more than a principle it is the motor of progress, ingenuity and prosperity.




Friday, 23 October 2009

They Don't Like It Up 'Em

Oh dear. Having taken a bit of a hammering at the hands of his fellow panellists and that nice Mr Dimbleby last night (although thanks to the Metropolitan Police the anti Nazi protesters never got their hands on him) Nick Griffin is now piteously whingeing about it being a lynch mob out to get him.

Now of course he does have a point. Last night's programme was about Griffin and his silly little party because the chattering classes have finally woken up to the threat, albeit six months too late. The usual format of Question Time was not exactly abandoned as some have alleged. But it did reflect this watershed in British politics. How could it do otherwise? Griffin was forced on to the defensive rather than just opine on the issues of the day. The thing is though Nick you are one of the big issues of the day. You were THE issue of yesterday and so you were forced to talk about yourself. It's no use complaining. You got your wish.

Now presumably, now that this first programme is out of the way and a precedent has now been set, Griffin or his even more unpleasant fellow BNP MEP, will from time to time be invited on to future Question Times as are the representatives of other minor parties such as the Greens. That will be the moment for them to try and do normal politics and talk about the issues of the day. It will also be the moment for them to talk about some of their other policies. That should make for great entertainment.

You see if you leave aside all of the racist claptrap and the tendentious drivel that Griffin spouts and actually look at the policies, he unravels even more than he did last night. BNP policies are reactionary, isolationist and ridiculous. They actually have a great deal in common with some of the nastier regimes in the middle east or Africa. Nasty Nick would probably get on rather well with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were it not for the colour of his skin.

Last night's programme was always going to be the BNP show. To try and make it just a normal programme albeit with a fascist on the panel would have been absurd. But if Griffin wants to go on there again and talk policy then so be it. I wonder what he will complain about next time. It was the wrong kind of current affairs?

PS

And for those who argue that it shouldn't just have been about Nick Griffin, why not tune in next week. One of the guests will be Jacqui Smith. Does anyone think the audience will let her get away with just talking about the issues of the day? She may get booed even more than the BNP leader.

Still Shrinking

Britain remains in recession to the surprise of economists everywhere. Then again everything about this recession has come as a surprise to economists everywhere including the fact that there was a recession at all. This is now the worst recession for 54 years. We knew it was going to be bad, we didn't know it was going to be this long.

I hold my hands up though. I thought a few months ago that we were past the worst and could soon be emerging from recession and I was half wrong. We are past the worst and will probably emerge during this quarter but this has been a vicious and nasty decline which has done untold damage to us for the long term.

Alistair Darling has today claimed to be unsurprised by this shock revelation which is in itself a surprise because we were told that we would by now be emerging, nay bouncing out of recession. It was a prediction he relied upon to massage his figures. Instead, despite all of that 'real help' the government keeps talking about, we remained in recession right up until last month. The only bright spot has been that unemployment has not been as bad as feared but that is less to do with real help for hard working families as promised by Gordon Brown than the willingness of British workers and employers to accept more flexible working during the bad times.

It now seems clear that government measures such as the VAT cut have, as predicted here, made no difference whatsoever other than to further damage the public finances. It is also highly questionable whether quantitative easing has made any difference either. The trouble with that policy is that it cannot be measured with any accuracy, it has probably contributed to the plunge in sterling I alluded to yesterday, much of it may be going abroad and it will be devilishly difficult to unravel. Even announcing that it is going to be stopped will affect sentiment and may cause panic. I remain of the opinion that it was a stupid idea which should never have been attempted but was only attempted because the public finances were so disastrous it left few other conventional options.

The one thing the government should have done, again as advocated here months ago, was to be much much tougher with the banks. Instead they are again amassing huge profits and are now even doing better than before thanks to the loss of former rivals. Credit is still not flowing properly despite all of that money pumped in and that is down to the banks hoarding cash. It is a failure of government policy and it is what is prolonging this recession when other countries are emerging or have long since emerged.

Gordon Brown told us that we were best placed to ride out this recession. That has now proven to be as much of a fantasy as the figures in his Chancellor's budget. If and when we do emerge it will be despite the government and its actions. The damage done will have been serious and long term.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

A Victory For Democracy

I didn't watch Question Time. It's a programme I don't like at the best of times, although tonight's freak show of course would have had historical and news value. But you can read about it here, here, here, here, here, and here. As you can see, Griffin has certainly achieved plenty of publicity and column inches. But other than the fact that no publicity is bad publicity, this doesn't look like much of a triumph.

Okay now I'm having to watch it online. I surrender. I didn't want to but the fuss has made me relent.

Has all of this done the BNP any good? Possibly too early to say. But as so often the hype in advance amounted to so much more than the actual event. On the show Griffin was alternately shifty, evasive and downright dishonest. He tried to look reasonable but all too often the mask slipped.

I defended the BBC for putting him on the show and they have been vindicated I would say. On Question Time politicians have to cope not just with a presenter but with other panellists. But more than that they have to cope with an audience and the audience doesn't stand for shifty and dishonest politicians as MPs who had abused their expenses found out this summer. Griffin was booed, laughed at and probed ceaselessly. They made him talk about the Ku Klux Klan, race, Holocaust denial and all that he might have preferred to steer clear of. When he tried to claim Churchill as sympathetic to his cause he was booed and rightly so.

He seems to have buckled under the pressure. The laughter will have displeased him the most. If people see him as ridiculous, which he so clearly is, then the battle to be taken seriously is lost already. That was why this was the right forum. He couldn't grandstand, he couldn't just spout slogans, he was challenged repeatedly and had to reveal rather too much of himself. The audience was like a grand jury and their disdain was obvious.

So this was after all an exercise in democracy. It cost a lot of money to police and aroused a lot of vitriol and anger. But ultimately it made the leader of this nasty little party account for himself and he didn't do very well. It's possible of course that a tiny minority will have agreed with some of his views but then that will always be the case. But the vast majority of the audience for this kind of show will have seen him for what he is and that is all to the good.

The Pound In Your Pocket

For most people recessions and all of the statistical arguments that go with them are confusing and meaningless. Many only really get to grips with what has happened when we go abroad on holiday and see how little we get for our pounds. Sterling has dropped like a stone these last few months and you will only get to appreciate this if you are lucky enough to have a holiday or if you are unlucky enough to be living abroad receiving a pension from the UK like my Mum.

And yet today I have noticed a real way of picturing the damage done to our currency without setting foot more than a mile or so from home. If you have ever bought a ticket for one of those Euromillions draws on Fridays promising vast sums of money for the winner you will know that a ticket costs £1.50 as opposed to the £1 for the usual Lotto draws, a price that has stayed the same since the lottery's inception 15 years ago. Well no longer. Thanks to the precipitate drop of the pound against the euro the price will be going up by 33% to £2 from next month. They're trying to dress this up by adding an additional UK only prize as part of the draw but essentially they have had to put the price up because we are now paying a lot less than our fellow Europeans.

Harold Wilson once infamously claimed that a devaluation of sterling does not affect the pound in your pocket. From next month it's affecting the £1.50 in your pocket and your chances of being a Euromillionaire. Simple, easy to understand and devastating unless of course you are an exporter.

Question Time for Griffin and Labour

Since the BBC announced that the BNP's Nick Griffin would be invited on to it's so called flagship political programme, Question Time, acres of newsprint have been dedicated to the subject. Tonight this much anticipated event finally takes place. So here are my thoughts.

First the BBC is absolutely right to give Griffin this platform. Like it or not, and I don't like it as I wrote here in June, Griffin is an elected representative of this country in Europe. The fact that he managed this feat is a combination of a flawed electoral system and the failure of the main parties and in particular Labour to take on the BNP. They have only themselves to blame.

The first instinct of Labour when confronted with something they don't like is to either ignore it and pretend it isn't happening or to ban it. They have taken both attitudes with the BNP. Only this last week the Labour Chief Whip, Nick Brown, has been trying to deny Griffin and his colleague the normal access of MEPs to parliamentary facilities at Westminster. It is precisely this kind of head burying that creates the problem. Griffin is an unpleasant and extremist politician with a set of policies which are bizarre and illogical. But that makes the fact that he won a million votes all the more regrettable. He did so because Labour, in its arrogance, has taken its traditional supporters in the white working classes for granted and in its rush to be politically correct and progressive has actually managed to alienate them.

Last year when I was being taken to hospital the paramedic who was looking after me said what many are thinking. 'I resent,' he said 'being called racist because I think there are too many immigrants in this country.' Other less articulate former Labour supporters put it rather more forcefully. But it isn't because the country has suddenly become less tolerant. We remain one of the most tolerant and inclusive countries in the world. It is the feeling that our politicians have imposed mass immigration on us without asking, that in doing so they are risking that tolerance and the cohesiveness of our society and that they have created a social and legal structure which is being routinely abused by some immigrants to the detriment of the majority. Such sentiments are not even confined to the white working classes. They are widely felt across the social range and across the ethnic range. People feel angry and betrayed and worse ignored by the metropolitan political elite. The anger over MPs expenses was, as I wrote last week, just one symptom of a wider anger against the political class and this issue is at the forefront.

Some have argued that Griffin should not be allowed on Question Time tonight including a couple of cabinet ministers. Happily that is a view that has not prevailed. The arguments of Griffin are ridiculous and can easily be shown up as such. But he represents something that cannot or should not be ignored. As Frank Field and Nicholas Soames wrote in an excellent piece for today's Telegraph, it is this kind of blinkered and cowardly attitude which has enabled this strange, bigoted little man and his party of thugs and criminals to gain publicity. Only today he thanked the BBC for being stupid enough to let him on. That's because we have principles, Nick. You should try them. Odious though you are we believe in freedom of speech, we won't let you play the outcast and the martyr and we will defend your right to make a fool of yourself on national TV.

That should be the clinching argument for those who worry that the oxygen of publicity will allow the BNP to flourish. And take a look at the facts too. They got their MEPs elected in a European election on a low turnout in which Labour came third. It was the British people protesting and giving a kick up the backside to those in power. Yet even now some are arguing that they should be ignored.

And Question Time may be a flagship BBC political show but it's not as if they are being given a platform on Strictly Come Dancing or the X Factor is it. The audience of Question Time is more than likely sophisticated enough to see Griffin for what he is even if they have not already come to that opinion. I shan't be watching because I think the man is loathsome. But I defend his right to say what he says and to be challenged by those who are better debaters and better human beings. Our democracy is healthy enough to see off the Griffins of this world as it has done before. It would be nice if our leaders trusted us and listened to us so that he had never reared his ugly head in the first place.

Deliver Unto Us A Modern Royal Mail

The internet is a wonderful thing. It has opened up the world in so many ways, improved our access to information and created a whole new giant and spectacularly lucrative industry out of nothing. The IT revolution has been greater than anything the world has seen before, even when we moved from the fields to the cities in the industrial revolution. This time it is worldwide and has happened with astonishing speed.

But, like those other revolutions, this one has not been without its casualties. All kinds of businesses that were spectacularly lucrative just 5 years ago are now struggling and wondering if they will ever recover. Television and newspapers are feeling the Google effect especially hard with newspapers closing down every week and ITV, the company that was once said to have a licence to print money, struggling to find anyone willing to lead it through its current vicissitudes.

Mail has been one of the biggest casualties. We simply do not write letters as once we did. They have been replaced by the internet, SMS, instant messaging and e-mails. Businesses now exhort us to receive their statements and bills online to save paper and CO2 but also plenty of money.

That is why the dear old Royal Mail, the slowest and most cumbersome of the snail mailers, is struggling. Each year another chunk of correspondents switch to the electronic form. Delivering a letter now actually costs the company money.

And yet today and tomorrow the staff are going on strike to protest at the imposition of new technology and new working practices which will, the management hope, turn around this giant leviathan before it hits the rocks of obsolescence and consequent bankruptcy. It is already labouring under a massive pension deficit which is dragging the company down.

Of course the unions who have called this strike reject the possibility of bankruptcy because the Royal Mail is a special service, a unique public service and thus protected as part of the public sector. It's the age old story. Those in the public sector resist change and any notion of modernisation with so much more passion than the private sector. Of course the unions are not striking because of modernisation, threats to pay and the threat that staff might have to change their ways. Oh no. It's because they want to protect the service to the public. It's the same excuse rolled out every year when the train and tube drivers walk out. Pay? Of course not. It's public safety.

This does rather remind one of the miners' strike 25 years ago. A certain section of what we might term our artistic community tend to look back on that period with doe eyed naivety and misremember what it was all about and what people thought about it. Essentially the miners, and Arthur Scargill in particular, were saying that they deserved to keep their jobs in perpetuity regardless of the economics of their industry. It was simple and straightforward and the government said no, the British people in large part said no and even the Labour Party said no. They can make their awful films like the execrable Brassed Off and try to rewrite history but essentially that is what happened. They tried to hold the country to ransom and we wouldn't pay.

Back then Britain was being reshaped and reformed, sometimes brutally it is true, and the miners were the last redoubt of the old Britain. Except they weren't were they? The postmen, in those pre-internet, pre fax machine days, when BT, once part of something called the General Post Office, had only just been privatised, were still doing things the old fashioned way but could get away with it because we had no choice. Essentially the strike this week is a throw back to the arguments of the miners' strike, albeit with a Labour government in power to their enormous discomfort because their position is no different to the government of Mrs Thatcher.

Sadly we are not living in the 1950s when naughty postcards were sent from Blackpool and Brighton and love letters were still being written. Posties now deliver once a day because that is all that can be justified now that those missives have been replaced by text messages. I Luv U may not have the same lyrical and romantic quality as a perfumed sheet of paper filled with prose, but it is cheaper, quicker and more reliable. And sure it was nice that postmen were a part of the community and kept an eye out for the vulnerable but times move on and so must the Royal Mail.

By striking this week and most likely next all that the strikers will achieve is sending more business to their competitors and angering the public. Furthermore they are doing it at a time of maximum impact in the run up to Christmas. It is senseless and self defeating. Time has moved on and technology has moved on but the postmen want to carry on regardless and have the rest of us pay them for the privilege. It's not going to happen. We will carry on regardless, if necessary without the Royal Mail. That is the lesson of the miners strike 25 years ago. The posties are in an even more vulnerable position. Apparently they cannot see that. They soon will.


Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Show Us The Receipts

MPs desperate to cast aspersions on Sir Thomas Legg, are grasping with delight at the straw that is Legg's apology to Ken Clarke and the mistake over Norman Baker's gardening expenses for which he did not claim. Aha! say the recusants, we told you so, it's all a fit up.

Well, yes and no. Of course if Legg has made genuine mistakes then they should of course be corrected. Indeed this was the intention when those letters were sent out last week. But many MPs were not complaining about mistakes of fact but of interpretation and application. That is where the sympathy of the public will run out.

Furthermore the fact that the Legg inquiry has made mistakes may have more to do with the shoddy system he is now trying to make sense of than his own shortcomings. It seems clear that the Fees Office required very little in the way of supporting evidence and asked very few questions and that this was ruthlessly exploited by the supposedly honourable members, or at least a considerable number of them. That the paperwork is a jumble should hardly come as a surprise. It is still not the get out of jail card MPs think it is going to be.

PMQs 21st October

I think I would call today's PMQs a score draw. Cameron had some nice pre-prepared lines on Brown's inability to make a decision or show any leadership and Brown responded with his usual pre-prepared lines about all the things that (he alleges) the Tories would have got wrong. It's formulaic stuff from the PM but he delivers it with gusto - probably because he really does believe that Tories are evil and are wrong about almost everything and become really jolly angry with anyone who has the temerity to disagree with him. Or anyone who is a Tory of course.

Interestingly some are writing that Brown lost his rag. I don't think he did, well no more so than usual anyway. This is just how he responds to baiting. He shouts, jabs his finger at his tormentors and reads out lists. Yes there was slightly more volume which could be interpreted as anger but then that was because Cameron deliberately chose a subject on which Brown is between a rock and a hard place. His backbenchers are squarely behind the postal workers despite the idiocy of their position and Brown, too weak to give real leadership but presumably knowing how ridiculous and counterproductive the strike is, is reduced to sitting on the fence - a position he is getting to know all too well. Thus Cameron and the Tories had fun and Brown parried as best he could.

It is an awful lot like bear baiting and Brown always but always rises to that bait. Sophisticated or witty just isn't him and it is to his significant detriment on these occasions. The long faces of those on the benches around him told their own story. I'm not saying another rebellion is in the offing but they do look as though they are defeated already.

What will be interesting, given Brown's vulnerability, is if those TV debates ever happen. Will he be able to keep calm under those even more heightened circumstances? After all he has lost it with a number of different interviewers in recent months when all they were doing was asking perfectly reasonable questions or challenging his spun version of events. Presumably he will also have to subject himself to the Paxman or Humphries treatment. I would pay good money to be there then, albeit suitably padded up and wearing a helmet.

And can you believe that Jacqui Smith popped up and asked a planted question? Jacqui Smith! Whose idea was that? How do they think that looks to the public given last week's events? I'll tell you, it looks like the cosy Westminster club at work again. Yes, Jacqui you may have lied and stolen 116 grand but you are one of us and you said sorry, albeit with your fingers crossed behind your back, and so now you are forgiven. You couldn't make it up. Has anyone made a complaint to the police about this shameless, brazen woman? And if not, why not?

Anyway, PMQs. On the whole Brown played a straight bat with everything and came through okay. Unfortunately for him okay is not good enough. His clunking fist approach to parliament doesn't work anymore and he can look bruised and bewildered at times.

No real fireworks but a decent performance from Cameron without a real knock out blow. Then again perhaps, given Brown's flailing performances, he doesn't need one. He chose to go on the postal strike when he could have used the Mervyn King comments. Given that Brown is claiming his experience and financial acumen as his USP for the election it might be as well if the Tories concentrate their fire on that for a while. It might even make Brown lose that famous temper.

Brown's Fiddled Figures Part 24

According to this piece in The Economist, not only was Gordon Brown's announcement last week of asset sales to combat public debt a case of bad timing it was also as dishonest as we have come to expect from the great leader.

First it was one of those re-announcements we have come to know and love from Brown. The asset sales had already been announced by Alistair Darling in the Budget, although then it was over the more sensible period of 3 years and it was meant to plug the gap in public investment which will arise as public spending is cut.

Mr Brown is now proposing to bring forward those sales to help us deal with debt. Very sensible you might think, always supposing he can get the best price at the moment which of course is questionable.

But even then all is not as Brown presented it. Much of the property belongs to local authorities and so any receipts would stay with them and not go to the Treasury. That which does belong to central government, worth only around £2 billion would normally stay with the individual departments and be re-invested. Brown is of course free to change this but in any event its a tiny sum compared to the debt and even to the sums he was talking about last week.

As so often the prime minister has shot himself in the foot. So keen was he to talk about the problem he was until recently saying we didn't have, and so keen was he to show that he could address it in a different way that he seized upon these sales and announced them when he had no right to do so. It was his usual quest for headlines and to hell with the detail.

What he has now done however is show that there is a problem with debt and that there are no easy answers. This was Brown's tacit admission of something most of us have known for months or years, although he will never admit it.

United in Pointlessness

I'm sure that for some yesterday's announcement by the Vatican of a new legal structure so as to allow the entry of Anglicans into the Catholic Church is deeply significant. Some may regard it as an intolerable provocation. Others as clever politics. For most however it will be regarded as an irrelevance, yet more petty squabbling over nothing very much dressed up as deeply significant. It's all come about because women and gay men have been allowed to enter the clergy and some cannot reconcile themselves to this outrage. Can you bring yourself to care? No, nor me.

Of course there was a time when such measures and gestures would have provoked all kinds of national debate, anger and possibly even wars. Now the world has moved on. There have been some leader columns in newspapers but even those were probably just because they thought they ought to.

To me it just underlines how petty and ridiculous religion is at a fundamental level. So called Christians arguing about the sexuality or gender of those who hand out wine and toast and being unable to accept them for reasons few can satisfactorily explain. Most of us have left such pointless concerns behind. At moments like this we can see why.

Carey and the Doctor

The newspapers are currently full of the lovely and thoroughly delicious Carey Mulligan on the back of her performance in the new film An Education which received its premiere in London last night and will be opening in cinemas nationwide next week.

Carey, we are told, is going to be the next big thing and they cite her previous performances in the film of Pride and Prejudice and the BBC's superb Bleak House.

But what about her stand-out performance in the sublime and award winning episode of Doctor Who - Blink? It was one of those episodes in which the Doctor hardly appears thanks to a hectic filming schedule. But that episode, thanks to the writing of Steven Moffat and the performance of Carey Mulligan, was one of the highlights of the entire series. That was when I sat up and took notice of the beguiling, charismatic, talented and pretty Carey Mulligan and rather hoped we would be seeing a lot more of her. It seems that wish is coming true.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Candidates on Merit

I want to like David Cameron I really do. I hope and pray that he can seal the deal with the British people and become our next prime minister. But if I'm honest I want this because he is the least worst option available at present. Anything but Gordon leaves us nothing but David.

The trouble is that the man who once claimed to be the heir to Blair will keep living up to this rash promise. Today he is threatening all women shortlists for selection as parliamentary candidates. This from the party that is promising that it will promote localism to bring power and decision making closer to the people.

Now trying to make parliament and indeed the Conservative Party more representative of the nation as a whole is a laudable and desirable aim. But imposing it from above sends out an appalling signal which is entirely at odds with what ought to be a central Conservative principle. The way to attract more women, ethnic and other minorities into the party is to set out those principles clearly and to campaign vigorously to attract like minded people to join.

The Conservative ethos ought to be colour and gender blind. The party should be seeking out the most talented and best qualified to represent it and not worrying about quotas as the likes of Harriet Harman and much of the Labour Party do. That road leads to having the likes of Jacqui Smith as our Home Secretary. It's hard to see anything positive about that piece of discrimination.

Perhaps this is a sign that Labour's Tory Toffs attack line is starting to niggle at Cameron. Whatever the reasoning, this is one piece of party modernisation he ought to think twice about. He has already bravely implemented open primaries to select candidates. Thus far that has resulted in mostly male candidates selected. But then that's democracy. And it's local. Trying to control things from the top ought to be alien to Mr Cameron. He should think again.

No Integrity in Politics

There was a time, not actually that long ago, when the sort of public borrowing figures revealed today by the Office of National Statistics would have brought about the fall of a government. Prime Ministers resigned and new governments were formed, without calling an election, over single if important issues on which they had been defeated or even just heavily criticised. Governments would admit to their exhaustion and would advise the monarch to give some other chap a go.

Now admittedly those days of gentleman governments in which it was far from unusual to have a PM sitting in the House of Lords, the days of names like Palmerston, Peel, Disraeli, Gladstone and Rosebery are long gone, replaced by something at least notionally more democratic. Yet you have to wonder how much better off we are. Can you imagine Gordon Brown waking up one morning, looking at those borrowing figures and the state of his alleged government and turning to Sarah and saying 'you know, I've given it my best shot but I think it's time to give someone else a go before things get worse'? The man claims to be a patriot and yet his first and only thought is about himself and maybe then his party. The rest of us can go hang.

Those public borrowing figures are a disaster and they keep having to be recalculated upwards. Every six months the Chancellor goes to the Commons and admits his forecasts were as wrong as we all said they were at the time, that he was too optimistic and that things are even worse. Yet because of a looming general election none of the parties will be honest or take any tough decisions. We are currently supposed to be suffering from or in grave danger of deflation. Yet pensions and other benefits are set to be increased next year by 2% missing the opportunity to save much needed billions. Talk of increasing the pension age is put off until some day in the distant future, and when the Tories made the mistake of implying that women's retirement ages would be raised to bring equality with men and save more much needed billions they quickly backtracked.

Yet all the time that borrowing is ratcheting upwards. All of the time the payments required to service that debt increase meaning that the cuts when they eventually come will have to be progressively harsher. It really isn't difficult to understand. Yet nobody who aspires to lead us after that election is talking about it, even when they claim to be being honest with us. Instead they make announcements about selling off various publicly owned assets at a time when the price they get will be derisory.

Politics in this country is in a state of limbo. We have a prime minister who has lost all authority and whose backbenchers are threatening to quit unless he backs down on their penny pinching expenses claims. They are even now trying to smear Sir Thomas Legg because he had the temerity to do his job properly and call into question those expenses. That's modern politics for you. Don't bother trying to win the argument, just use character assassination instead.

In December 1852 Disraeli presented a budget to the Commons which required some imaginative juggling to make the figures balance, albeit a matter of only a few hundred thousand pounds - even today the comparatively paltry sum of say £100 million. Yet this then outrageous behaviour saw that budget defeated and led to the fall of the government.

A new government was then formed with Lord Aberdeen at its head and Gladstone as Chancellor. At his budget he was faced with the task of being open and coherent about the issues he meant to confront and the need to persuade parliament that it was necessary to extend an income tax to balance the books and to introduce other reforming measures. He did so in a speech of four and three quarter hours. And this at a time when rotten boroughs still existed and barely a tenth of the population got the vote.

Our modern day politicians should hang their heads in shame. We live in the communications age and yet our rulers refuse to address issues which could and should force them to resign. We are watching the sickening spectacle of MPs arguing over a few hundred pounds of their expenses when the nation is sinking, weighed down by a concrete overcoat of debt. We have as our prime minister a man who was the author of many of our problems who refuses to call an election or to countenance resignation and regards questions about it as tittle tattle.

Back in the days of Gladstone et al, Queen Victoria took a somewhat more proactive role in the appointment of ministers. As a republican I regard that as outrageous. But right now even I would welcome the present Queen acting as an honest broker for the good of us all. Enough is enough she should say. The country needs governing not spin and power struggles. Tough decisions need to be made which are currently being postponed for up to six months.

Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, will soon make his autumn statement, a statement that will be long on wishful thinking and short on the honesty and the concrete proposals we need. Yet under current plans he will also get the chance to deliver an even more pointless budget statement next spring in which he will attempt to bribe us with our own money and pretend that our debt problems do not exist.

This cannot go on. The Queen should tell the Prime Minister that she is dissolving parliament. We need an election now.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Saving the World: The Encore

Gordon Brown, we're told, is fond of comparing himself to Winston Churchill. No, really. Brown considers that he saved the world last year when we were on the brink of financial cataclysm and now, if the polls are to be believed, he is set to suffer Churchill's fate in 1945 when, having saved the country and arguably Europe from Nazism, he was turfed out of office.

Now I've always regarded the whole Churchill story as a somewhat simplistic way of looking at things. Yes Churchill was a colossus during the war but he was a member of a party that had tried to appease Hitler prior to that war (Churchill, who warned against the policy, was in the political wilderness as we all know) and thus were to blame for our dire situation. The war was won by a coalition government including many of those who went on to win in 1945. The country was grateful to Churchill but not to his party. That at least partly explains the loss.

But anyway, back to Brown. Having saved us from disaster last year he now cannot understand our ingratitude and no doubt this will be what he will tell himself if and when he is turfed out like his illustrious predecessor. He simply will not acknowledge that, like the Conservatives in the run up to the war, he was partially responsible for placing us in the dire peril we found ourselves in last year. He did indeed have a good crisis, although how Churchillian he was during that time is somewhat in doubt. But unlike Winston he was also in power when the conditions were being created for that crisis to happen and ignored all warnings about it.

So now Brown is out to save the world again, because we clearly weren't paying enough attention the first time around. This time he is out to save us from catastrophic climate change, a phrase delivered not quite with Churchillian gusto but with his best approximation of it.

Yes Copenhagen is nearly here and so our posing prime ministers and presidents must now take out their best alliterative phrases and hyperbole before issuing their pointless and absurd edicts in a few weeks' time. We've already seen it at G8, G20 and anything else beginning with G you can think of (do you think that Brown thinks it stands for Gordon?) when leaders promised that carbon emissions would be cut and that they would in some unspecified way ensure that temperatures did not increase by more than a couple of degrees.

Today Brown has been in hyper saviour mode, quoting various spurious and unproven facts and figures which make his old budgets look like models of open and honest fiscal rectitude. It's natural territory for him really. These are figures which we cannot uncover by forensically going through the small print. These are figures plucked out of the supposedly warming air but which cannot be proved or disproved for 20 years or more. He can give dire warnings, make baseless assertions about catastrophe and spend billions upon billions on pointless schemes to make us greener and portray himself as principled and far sighted rather than desperate and dishonest. It's political manna from heaven. He can probably even convince himself he's having a Churchillian moment.

After he was booted from office, Churchill famously gave a speech in which he warned of an iron curtain falling across Europe leading to the cold war. Modern leaders must conjure up new enemies to galvanise us against in this new hot war. It's an enemy that is visible only on computer screens or those of the BBC and an enemy that probably doesn't exist. Yet the battalions we are being asked to send in to battle are just as ruinously expensive and potentially catastrophic to our way of life as the armies of the cold war once were.

Never have so many taken so much on trust from so few armed with nothing but computer models as Churchill might have said.

Gordon's Dilemma

Paul Waugh in The Evening Standard reports that five Labour backbenchers are threatening to quit over the Legg report and his demands for the repayment of expenses triggering by elections as Ian Gibson did in Norwich in the summer.

Presumably they are calculating that this threat will force Brown to back down and take a softer line on the repayment issue. Yet if he does, in marked contrast to the other parties, it will further damage him in the polls just when he seemed to be making a slight recovery (see previous post).

Our serially irresolute and indecisive prime minister will now be tortured and the phones will be flying. Yet it is hard to see why. He had already made the right call by telling his MPs, assuming that the calculations made by Legg's auditors are not mistaken, to swallow their anger and swallow this bitter pill. To do otherwise will simply create more public anger and focus it on the Labour Party. He should simply tell them to do as they are told or call those by elections which they will then lose. The government will struggle on.

This could actually strengthen Brown's position if he could only see it. Losing 5 MPs would of course be a blow but not a terminal one in parliamentary terms. But by setting his face against such mutinous behaviour he would appear strong and principled and would face down any other potential rebels who might make a different calculation about repayments against how much they will make in the meantime. They only get compensated if they lose their seats at a general election. And even if the rebellion grows then he has the ultimate weapon at his disposal - a general election. Do rebels really want to go into that arguing that they shouldn't have to repay money that an independent inquiry has demanded?

Electoral Reality

Everyone is assuming that we will have a Conservative government in a few months' time. Given their consistent lead in the polls for the last year or so, with that lead sometimes in to the high teens it would seem on the face of it to be a reasonable assumption. But take a closer look at the polls and the underlying trends and David Cameron's party should be very nervous about the next few months.

The latest polls over the weekend saw that lead reduced to around 10 points. Still a healthy lead one might imagine. Except that the vagaries of the British electoral system dictate otherwise. In order to avoid too heavy a defeat or even a narrow win, the Labour Party do not need to win the popular vote. They need to narrow that gap so that the Conservatives cannot overhaul their parliamentary majority. In order to win the Tories need a victory of near 1997 proportions. Yet the country for a number of reasons is just not in that kind of mood.

The most worrying aspect of their recent opinion poll performance for the Conservatives will be that their most impressive leads have come about during Labour's various disasters under Gordon Brown. The Damien McBride affair, 10p tax, MPs expenses and so on have all led directly to healthy double digit Tory leads. Yet quieter periods have seen Labour eat into that lead. Such is the case now. Despite the fact that Brown remains one of the most unpopular and least respected prime ministers in recent history, if he keeps his head down and 'just gets on with the job' as he so often tells us he is doing, the British public's hostility towards him and his party noticeably diminishes. If only Labour had the guts to replace him it would very likely be a game changer.

Assuming that no further disasters befall this remarkably accident prone administration and assuming that Brown manages to face down any further rebellions, it is not impossible that Labour's poll ratings could creep up into the low to mid 30s. At that point we are looking at a hung parliament and suddenly it is by no means certain that Brown would be obliged to go. I have remarked before that it will take wild horses to drag him out of Downing Street. In the event of a indecisive poll he would be the incumbent and only a vote in the Commons would remove him.

Of course in that situation all eyes would then fall on the LibDems. What would they do? They are fond of portraying themselves as the moral rectitude party, unsullied by the more cynical motives of the other two. Suddenly they would be faced with a dilemma. If Brown promised them electoral reform and a seat or two in his cabinet in order to preserve him in office would they take the bait?

David Owen, the former SDP leader, argued this weekend that the Lib Dems should abandon pretence and admit that they cannot win.

Politics is already in disrepute in this country before we have to face the prospect of the shady deal making that a hung parliament would present. We could see a situation in which the winners of the popular vote are kept out of government by an unpopular incumbent prime minister doing a deal with the minority parties. He could then proceed to reform our electoral system so as to keep out the Conservatives almost permanently.

Champions

I didn't get time to write about it yesterday because of other commitments and IT difficulties, but congratulations to British world champions this morning and how often can we say that? Beth Tweddle, who seems to have been around forever in the world of gymnastics, became champion the hard way, by taking on a difficult routine and pulling it off. These days ambition rather than less ambitious perfection is rewarded in the sport, which is as it should be.

Perhaps the best part of her accomplishment is that it was at home in front of a home crowd of cheering kid and at the the 02 arena not so very far away from where the currently half finished Olympics site is rising slowly but inexorably from the ground. Perhaps some of those in the crowd yesterday or watching on TV will have been inspired to try for a bit of the glory themselves, or at least to give some form of sport a go.

Then Jenson Button became the second successive British Formula One World Champion and our ninth overall. Just like Lewis Hamilton last year, it was nail biting stuff and required a bit of classic heroic derring do to pull it off. From 14th on the grid Button drove like a man possessed. Perhaps he was. Earlier in the season he had swept all before him only for his form and luck to drop off alarmingly in the second half as the other constructors caught up and produced better and better cars.

But Button had it in his hands. It was his to lose and so he clearly decided not to. He had a bit of luck along the way of course as the dreaded safety car was deployed. But on top of that much needed luck he drove with the combination of aggression and precision which makes champions stand out. Indeed it was a performance worthy of the greats. Perhaps his season overall lacked greatness but yesterday, when it was needed, he found it, pulled off some superb overtaking manoeuvres and got the championship his early season deserved.

So congratulations to two more British world champions. I've been able to write similar sentences to that a few times this year. It feels good.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Moving Goalposts

The Sunday Telegraph reports today that the only recently agreed to debates between the party leaders are in peril again because of haggling over detail. It is just as many of us predicted. One only has to look at the United States where these debates are a regular part of the election cycle to see how they can become tortuously complicated as the candidates fight for a set of rules to work in their own favour.

Here we aren't even talking about rules yet. They are still arguing over how many debates there should be and who should be involved. Should it be just Cameron versus Brown? Should Nick Clegg be involved? Should Alex Salmond get a place? Will he sue if they won't let him?

On top of this, Gordon Brown, after dithering forever on whether or not to even take part in a debate at all, now wants six of them. Six! This was always going to be a long election campaign, now it could feel like a spell in purgatory.

Why do Labour want so many debates? Perhaps they hope that Brown will be able to bore us into submission. Or maybe he plans to deploy that famous smile he used in that video earlier this year. Vote for me or I'll keep doing this.

The theory is of course that Brown will be good at these sort of setpieces because of his mastery of detail. But is that necessarily the kind of talent that comes across well on television? And how good will Brown be if he is invited to stray out of his comfort zone and extemporise a little? This is the man who couldn't bring himself to express a preference about his favourite kind of biscuit the other day. Word has it that he wanted to set up an independent committee to look into the matter. To dunk or not to dunk? Well it's really not that simple. I think we need to see what the science tells us before we come to any kind of determination.

I get the strong impression that Labour is now pretending to be enthusiastic about debates and proposing to widen them into debates between other ministers and their shadows in order to try and provoke the Tories into calling the whole thing off. What they should actually do is put the whole matter into the hands of someone else, maybe a retired civil servant. He or she can then set the rules which the parties can then complain about as being retrospective and unfair and then refuse to get involved whilst of course being firmly behind the principle of openness and honest debate. The more I look at the manoeuvring going on, the more I think we aren't even going to have one debate let alone six.




Saturday, 17 October 2009

Getting Their Collars Felt At Last

The reaction of most people to the news that Revenue and Customs are to investigate a number of MPs with regard to their expenses claims will be: about time, what took you so long? It has been common knowledge since this scandal broke and amongst most in the Westminster village for a great deal longer than that, that these so called expenses were nothing of the sort. It was a form of additional salary but with the distinct advantage that, by claiming that they were merely being reimbursed for their legitimate expenses, MPs need not pay any tax on it. Now, at last HMRC, is calling this into question.

This is an issue which MPs have been managing to cloud with their ceaseless whinging this last week. But expenses are supposed to be reimbursement for expenditure on items which are wholly necessary for their jobs. Plasma TVs? Hi- Fis? Expensive refurbishments? Sky subscriptions?

The likes of Sir Stuart Bell have of course tried this week to shift the blame on to Commons' officials who agreed these spurious claims and indeed the Legg inquiry for deviously trying to inject some sense and proportion into the formerly non existent rules. Yet expenses should always have been only for items "wholly, necessarily and exclusively" required by MPs in the performance of their duties. It was clear and in black and white. They chose to ignore this, presumably because they were all at it and of course because at the time their constituents were unable to get access to the information.

It has been clear to those of us in the real world that MPs have been breaking the law. In some cases it is just tax law but others have been guilty of blatant fraud as outrageous as incapacity benefit claimants with nothing wrong with them. Since many MPs do not have the good sense to hold up their hands, admit their wrongdoing and pay up, let the law force them to do so. It might be a way of finally bringing some closure to this tawdry tale.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Jan Moir

It was bound to happen eventually of course given the sort of people who write for it, but a Daily Mail columnist has today been on the receiving end of some richly deserved opprobrium from the Tweeting classes.

The Mail's Jan Moir wrote an astonishingly bigoted and unpleasant column about the death of the former Boyzone singer Stephen Gately earlier this week. Based on hearsay, speculation and pure spite she made various suppositions and insinuations about his lifestyle in the trademark Daily Mail style, namely "of course we are not in anyway xxxxxphobic, but......."

She then took her argument, such as it was, to allege that his tragic death could not be an accident and that this was somehow connected to his sexuality. More than that, in Ms Moir's mind this somehow proved that civil relationships will never work like, I don't know, all of those marriages which each year end up in divorce. Read it for yourself via the link above. It's mind boggling that anyone can include so many non sequiturs in one column.

The very unusual and tragic circumstances of Gately's death prove something in Jan Moir's mind regardless of the officially released information that he died of natural causes. 'Pah!' says she. 'It's a conspiracy'.

Happily we live in an interconnected world and this kind of bizarre bigotry can be easily and quickly challenged. The comments on the Mail's site took her to task and then the internet got to work. Now she is being forced to 'clarify' what she meant. That's not good for someone who is paid to communicate for a living is it Jan? Or did you say exactly what you meant and got more than you bargained for?