Saturday, 31 December 2011

2011: A Year That Could Change History

2011 has been an astonishing and at times epoch making twelve months. It is a year that has had more than its fair share of events that will mark it out and make it forever memorable, that will resonate through history, bending and shaping it in ways for now unknown, like a massive star bends and shapes space time.

What has made it so astonishing is that so many of these events came out of a clear blue sky, entirely unforeseen. We had the usual natural disasters, the usual political and personal folly; but on top we had events and revolutions, a domino effect across the middle east which made regimes around the world tremble with fear and inspired hope in anyone who cares about freedom, human rights and democracy.

The overriding theme of the year has been technology. We have long known that we are living through a technological revolution, a time when constant innovation has changed our lives in ways few could have imagined, least of all those who, without irony, call themselves futurologists. But most of this technology, though exciting and life changing for those fortunate enough to be able to afford to ride the bandwagon, has been about leisure and, at best, education. The fact that few nowadays are untouched by the internet and the rise of the mobile phone has been more a matter of curiosity than anything else. When 3G first came along the phone companies didn't really know what we the public would do with it. Now we have Twitter and Facebook constantly at our fingertips, we have mobile e-mail and documents. We have pocket cameras ready to capture life's minutiae and to spread those moments virally around the world.

But it was 2011 which revealed to us the power of these devices and just how our interconnected world can be a force for good, or at least a force for change. Nobody saw the Arab Spring coming. Nobody imagined that we would soon be rid of three of the world's nastiest but most entrenched dictators. This time last year it had started, we just didn't know exactly what had started. Mohamed Bouazizi, enraged by the arrogance of officialdom denying him a living, set himself alight. Word spread through the internet. The technological revolution had created a real revolution, the old fashioned sort and, within a month, the first of that triumvirate of torture and tyranny, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had fled abroad with as much of his ill gotten gains as he could load on a plane.

Within weeks a second had departed as the revolution spread to the lynchpin of the middle east and its most populous state, Egypt. Then it spread to Libya. Surely, the experts opined, that wily old madman Gadaffi would survive. He was more entrenched than all of them. After all, the revolutionary fervour spread to Bahrain and Yemen and Syria, but without the same success. The dictators were learning from the mistakes of their peer group. But around the world regimes trembled. Some responded by oppressing their people further. Others chose to at least talk about reform and greater openness.

And when eventually Gadaffi fled and was eventually despatched by a people mad for revenge, there can have been few dictators around the world who did not tremble a little more and few who, though revolted by the images of blood and pitiless violence, were not a little thrilled that this most cynical of dictators, this man who only weeks earlier had promised terrible retribution on the dogs rebelling against him when NATO went away, had got a dose of his own medicine. He was reported to have asked his assailants 'what did I do to you?'

Technology played its part here in Britain too. Journalists had discovered many years ago, before phones became smart, that there was gold to be gleaned from hacking into the phones of celebrities and other targets. This was journalism that could be done from the comfort of their desks, serving up gossip and occasional even juicier titbits about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It would probably all have been restricted to angry actors and tv presenters but for the revelation, subsequently shown to be untrue, that the News of the World had deleted messages on the phone of Milly Dowler and other unwilling participants in the media circus.

Before all of this came out, we had had seen technology confounding British justice and showing the law to be an ass once again. Celebs and errant husbands had taken to securing privacy orders with draconian measures which prevented freedom of speech and even the reporting of cases. The masses of the Twitterati and blogosphere expressed their outrage at the likes of Ryan Giggs trying to hide his indiscretions behind the mask of privacy. The line between freedom of expression and the right to privacy was a debate that started in the press only to be drowned out by the News International furore. It is a subject we will return to, perhaps in a less busy year than 2011.

The British riots in August were a less wholesome example of what technology can do. This eruption of violence and greed, shown in real time across the 24 hour news networks, shocked the nation and the world. It came about at first because one man was shot and youth rioted. In subsequent days that link was purely imaginary. The real link was once again mobile phones and 24 hour news and the realisation that people could loot and rob with impunity. Later studies sought to pin the blame on the police, who apparently are not liked by large sections of our youth, usually the criminal sections. One even flew back from his holidays early to join in the fun. Quite how this proved the point of those arguing that the riots were down to police oppression and government cuts remains a mystery.

Yet it is undeniable that the Metropolitan Police, which has had another disastrous year, for those few days, lost control of the streets of the nation's capital. Only when they deployed to their full strength, supplementing their numbers with officers from as far afield as Wales, did London's streets become calm again, albeit an eerie, nervous kind of calm. Time eventually changed the mood as only time can. Lessons will have been learnt. The only revolution sparked was one in police tactics and public attitudes. The prevailing attitudes were that these were greedy thugs who saw an opportunity. If it were to happen again they would not have it so easy, not least because shopkeepers and communities would fight back, as they did in parts of London.

Contrast those few days in Britain (or England as the ever precious Scots insisted we call it on this occasion) with the scenes in Japan following the devastating earthquake and tsunami, another event brought to a watching world live on television or your chosen viewing device. There was no looting and lawlessness, there was just quiet, dignified grief  laced with shock, plus a stoical determination to rebuild. Even the nuclear plant at  Fukushima was dealt with with quiet efficiency, despite the media jeremiahs predicting imminent disaster. In Europe, German politicians reacted in a very unGerman way and decided that nuclear was altogether too dangerous, despite clear evidence of design flaws in notoriously earthquake prone Japan (where do we get the word tsunami from after all?)

But then of course this has not been a great year for politicians, and European politicians in particular. The slow motion car crash that is the Euro ground on all year, with numerous last chance summits to save it, coming up with the same or similar prescriptions, high on rhetoric and promises but short on action. It was precisely this kind of recipe which created the monumental folly in the first place. There are few signs that anything will change until reality intervenes, probably forcefully and with extreme prejudice for those of us forced to watch and then suffer as our politicians preen and prevaricate.

Yet that reality is some way from dawning as we reach the end of 2011. Britain vetoed one of those deals which was meant to save the Euro but which was actually just a power grab by France and Germany, along with a nice opportunity to pin the blame on we recalcitrant and insufficiently European Brits. At the time of writing there is every chance that Europe will simply do what it always does and refuse to take no for an answer. Those nice Lib Dems will probably help our European partners get what they want, whilst claiming to do the opposite in their electoral strongholds in the south west. Fortunately other countries, notwithstanding the previous agreement, have now realised how dangerous what is being proposed could prove to be. Another summit will soon appear on the horizon at which nothing will be achieved.

Meantime Europe, whilst the middle east fought for democracy, managed to become even more undemocratic in 2011. The prime minister of Greece was swiftly despatched for having the temerity to suggest that he should consult the people through a referendum. He was followed by Silvio Berlusconi, both replaced by unelected technocrats, alleged experts who will toe the European line and impose cuts on their people to save the great Euro project. This is odd when you think about it, since Berlusconi, in at least his private affairs, was famous for buying off people who initially said no. But then the same was true of Dominique Strauss Kahn. He liked women who said no. It excited him. Perhaps that's why he was, until one such woman spoke out and was joined by others, regarded as favourite for the French presidency.

In domestic British politics, the clear winner was Alex Salmond who achieved what few thought possible and which was actually supposed to be impossible by design thanks to the devolution arrangements - namely a majority in the Scottish Parliament. He now intends to hold a referendum on independence, albeit at a time that suits him after engineering a big row with London. For now it looks unlikely, but then we said the same this time last year about his election chances. Indeed Ed Miliband this time last year said that Scotland would be the setting for Labour's fightback.

Speaking of Miliband, or Forrest as he is known on this blog, it has been a terrible year. But for a brief spell when he set the agenda around the phone hacking and News International story, he has consistently failed to make an impact and is actively sinking in the polls against a government presiding over a flatlining economy and imposing spending cuts.

Ah, say his defenders, but that is based largely around his performances in the PMQs sessions, when David Cameron can produce a good line and Forrest, in his flat footed way, can be made to look rather silly. But that is very far short of his problem. His problem is that he is the geek who stabbed his brother in the back. He is someone who wanted the top job and, but for a few soundbites, seems to have little idea what to do with it. It's like Gordon Brown all over again. He is a bandwagon jumper who consistently jumps on the wrong one or manages to get the tone wrong when he chooses the right one, witness his ill judged attempt to side with the Occupy movement of latter day hippies and Marxist fantasists currently besmirching one of our greatest landmarks in London.

It's actually British and indeed western politics in microcosm. We have leaders who cannot lead and who speak in endless soundbites without any content for fear of saying the wrong thing or offending the wrong people. Have we forgotten this much mocked but actually quite instructive interview? It's unintentionally hilarious but shows that it is not just on the floor of the House of Commons that this alleged intellectual is utterly incapable of thinking on his feet and talking extemporaneously without resorting to pre-prepared lines and soundbites. It's no wonder people think he's weird.

David Cameron however is ending the year on a surprising high. His veto has been a hit, albeit one which will cause him problems, not only at the next summit, but with the prickly and hypocritical Lib Dems. Nick Clegg in particular made an arse of himself in the last few weeks of the year, despite the presence in government of Vince Cable and Chris Huhne as competition for being self regarding, duplicitous and thoroughly dishonest.

David Cameron is looking increasingly like a prime minister blessed with good luck. His opponents are looking clueless and conflicted and struggling to come up with a convincing line on the economy. His partners in government are restricted to claiming that they are there purely to restrain those evil Tories and send their spokemen out to trot out this line whenever possible. Oh and Clegg is going to reform the House of Lords too we're told because this year's other attempt at constitutional change via a referendum so excited the public.

Across the pond, Barack Obama is ending the year looking surprisingly likely to be re-elected at the end of 2012. This is not because he has a good year in international diplomacy, because it has been as disastrous as all of the others and with another war in the middle east a looming possibility just as he as pulled out of Iraq; it's not because the American economy is on the mend or that unemployment is falling. It's not even because he managed to kill America's public enemy number one just before the anniversary of 9/11. It's actually because, like his table tennis partner David Cameron, he is lucky enough to be facing a party in disarray with no clear leader, just a bunch of opportunists who look more like they are trying to build a media image to sell books and forge a media career rather than be leader of the free world.

The one thing that was not extraordinary about 2011 was that we lost a number of people to disease, old age, violence or simple human folly. The death of Elizabeth Taylor would at any other time have been front page news. On many occasions, as this blog pointed out, there was just too much news in 2011. 

The shock of the murders of 69 people in normally sleepy and peaceful Norway will live long in the memory. Anders Breivik, the perpetrator, has since been judged to be insane, but it is hard not to worry that his kind of insanity may spread if our politicians do not get to grip with our economic woes and find a way to embrace and seize on the opportunities of globalisation without marginalising those who have been priced out of markets and decent paying jobs. We will need better and braver politicians than those we have watched in frustration in 2011 if we are not to descend into the kind of politics Breivik espoused, however deranged he may be. I have a friend who lives in Norway as an immigrant who, not long after the murders, had a Nazi sign daubed outside his home. We should be fearful. Norway, after all, is rich and prosperous and not in the  dysfunctional, undemocratic, sclerotic EU and its absurd common currency.

And of course we lost Amy Winehouse this year too. Few were surprised. But we were still sad. Her legacy of sublime music, though a consolation, cannot diminish the regret of what else she could have achieved.

We should however mention that this was the year of Adele, and what a year it was for her. At a time when British female songstresses seem to be everywhere, she was way ahead of the field. Apparently there were more singles, in their various forms, sold in the UK last year than ever before which is a surprising but uplifting statistic. Adele must be responsible for a large part of that success story, something that Britain remains very very good at.  Sadly she ended it having to have surgery on those astonishing vocal chords of hers. 

And in this year when technology helped to change and shape the world in ways that are still emerging, we also lost a man who helped bring that technology to the masses. Steve Jobs was a visionary, a challenging man who challenged those around him to create extraordinary devices and products we didn't know we needed. In the years to come those devices will continue to change and shape our world as they did in 2011, so perhaps it is appropriate that this year ends with the British designer of some of Apple's most iconic products, Jonathan Ive, being knighted.

Finally, as if to prove that this year was the year of technology, North Korea, a country that cuts itself off from all of it, proved the point. This pariah state and feudal dictatorship lost one dear leader and has now handed the crown (they might as well have a crown) to another podgy, overindulged misfit in a land of famine and malnutrition. This is a country that needs a lot of things more than it needs smart phones, but the fact that they are denied them means that it is likely to endure.

So goodbye 2011, wou will not be forgotten, even if we are glad that you are now gone.

Happy New Year!

Why Not Sir Ronnie?

Our honours system is an enduring mystery isn't it, not because they hand out baubles to businessmen, millionaire donors to political parties and hedge fund managers, even though city types are currently as popular as chapped lips on New Year's Eve. No, the mystery is how do they decide who gets what?

Today, Ronnie Corbett, pint sized comic and a current national treasure has been handed a CBE. Richly deserved you might well think. Yet this octogenarian comedian is in the company of Helena Bonham Carter, half his age whilst OBEs have been awarded to Lorraine Kelly and the Sky reporter Alex Crawford who got lucky in Libya a few months ago and landed a scoop. At the same however, Clive James, another journalist and entertainment veteran is handed a CBE like Corbett.

But what is most perplexing is that last year Bruce Forsyth, another octogenarian alleged entertainer, was knighted. One can only conclude that these awards are handed out to those who command large television audiences. The others seem to have to build up credits over a longer period and hope they stay in the public eye for a long time. It's also best not to die to young. After all, great comedians such as Eric Morecambe, Tommy Cooper etc never became knights, presumably, since they commanded mega audiences of the size modern entertainers can only dream of, this was purely because they had weak hearts.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The BBC and Empty Space

Having been rude about BBC News yesterday, I shall now redress the balance. I enjoyed, unlike some, this year´s Dr Who Christmas special. It was actually one of the best of recent years. The new version of Great Expectations has been impressive. And they have also been trying their damnedest to popularise science with the likes of Brian Cox and Jim Al Khalili. If only they had taught physics like this when I was at school I might have been as enthusiastic about it at the age of 15 as I am at the age of 46.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Breaking News: Nonagenarian Leaves Hospital - Few Care

There are some of us who believe that the advent of 24 hour television news has trivialised news coverage and, far from enhancing coverage, has actually curtailed it and made it shallower. For evidence we need only look at today's 'top story'.

A nonagenarian, who, if he were anyone else, would be of no interest whatsoever and indeed would be persona non grata owing to his charmless idiosyncrasies and mildly bigoted gaffes which would have got Jeremy Clarkson sacked years ago. Anyway, this elderly man leaves hospital after only 3 days, having undergone relatively mild surgery. Not only does he receive blanket coverage, with much ill informed and uninteresting speculation about what he is now going to do and the ramifications for his less than arduous work schedule. He was even followed by helicopter for god's sake so that we got lots of shots of a fast moving convoy of cars going through gates. Why in the name of all that was holy was this necessary? Or did they have a product placement deal with Range Rover?

Is there actual evidence that the public is this desperate for news of our tedious royals? Other than the lovely Kate and her sister's bottom, is there any evidence whatsoever that this stuff captures the interest of the public to the extent that we wish to see a nasty old curmudgeon be driven to one of his many homes along with regular bulletins about his health and which of his parasitical family visited him each day? Even the bloody Daily Mail, that most determined royal cheerleader and sycophant, leads today's edition with news of how much money we have spent on the high streets - when people are not getting stabbed in them.

I know that there isn't much news around at the moment but do we have to invent it? They may as well give us bulletins and progress reports on George Michael, who has also recently been in hospital and has achieved a great deal more than Philip ever has, adding to the gaiety of the nation in innumerable and disparate ways, especially since his recording career fizzled out and he took to nocturnal activities in the Hampstead area.

I dread to think what the coming jubilee year is going to be like, but I am seriously thinking of leaving the country for a few months and heading off to a republic, any republic. The royal wedding was bad enough, but the fawning we must endure and the breathless commentary about how hard working and dedicated this bunch of useless, talentless, socially inept, dimwitted, parasitical nonentities are makes me feel nauseated.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Boxing Day Greed

Yesterday, London´s Oxford Street was thronging with people looking for bargains, or just getting out of the house after Christmas. This of course was no thanks to the selfish Tube workers who preferred to throw a hissy fit and went on strike because their outrageous and selfish demands had been declined. They did the same last year too.

I wonder if they noticed, when a poor unfortunate was stabbed near Bond Street (the station itself was of course closed), that he was quickly attended by numerous public sector workers, from police officers to ambulance staff. They were working on Boxing Day without complaint, indeed many of them had probably been working on Christmas Day itself. They work in a sector that requires cover 24/7 every day of the year. They know this when they take up their jobs. The same is true of people up and down the country, who work in various sectors: broadcasting, emergency services, hospitals, power generation and the like. Indeed amongst the many working yesterday were the shop workers who were back at work after only one day off. Few of them are well paid. Most are probably just glad to have a job at all. This is their busy time of year, a concept which is alien to the Tube workers who would demand extra pay for working harder. The shop staff however went to work, not without some difficulty, because they have to, only to find that this was made more difficult by Tube drivers demanding triple time and a day off in lieu, thus endangering the livelihoods of their passengers who have the misfortune to work in the private sector.

Public service, whatever the unions tell us, is an alien concept to many who enjoy the benefits of a public sector job but hold the rest of us to ransom when they are asked to work unsocial hours or to make a greater contribution to their highly advantageous pension provision. The Tube workers who greedily striked yesterday and who have demanded and got huge packages for just turning up and doing their jobs during next year´s Olympics should be heartily ashamed of themselves. The next time some lefty whinger complains about bankers, remember this Christmas and the misery caused by a few selfish people who don´t see why they should have to work on bank holidays without massive compensation, something you would think they might have been prepared to do when they applied for their jobs. If the rest of the country behaved as they do we would have a crisis much worse than that caused by the banking crisis and the sort of services that only those in the public sector consider acceptable.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Never Had A Dream Come True

Merry Christmas. Here's a sort of Christmassy song that doesn't actually mention it so that we atheists are comfortable with it. It also reminds me of the woman I love.

And on the subject of music, how sad it is that, with the exception of ancient repeats of shows from the 1970s which just goes to prove that punk didn´t come along anything like soon enough, Christmas Day is now the only time we get to see Top of the Pops. You can see the delight in the eyes of today´s pop stars as they appear on this admittedly naff show for their moments of glory. ´Look Mum,´they´re saying Í´m on Top of the Pops.´

Now I know that the music industry has changed and evolved but why couldn´t the Beeb change and evolve this show. Look at those 1976 shows and you can see how much it was dragged into something resembling the 21st century by the time it was ripped from the airwaves. Why was it killed? Why are we denied the simple pleasure of a weekly chart countdown, bad miming or worse live performances, hating Radio One DJs and wondering why in the name of all that is holy that got to number one when your only favourite is languishing unloved in the 20s. Sure we would have to put up with the latest pap to emerge from the Simon Cowell treadmill, but it would also be a showcase for people of genuine talent and ability. It might even dissuade people to appear on Cowell´s get rich quick scheme and make proper music instead. S Club 7, when compared to much that has been produced thanks to Mr Cowell, were like pop demi gods by comparison.

The BBC, which is funded by all of us let us not forget, should rediscover its public service credentials and bring back Top of the Pops. Why not put it on on Saturday nights opposite the X Factor and so on? Who wouldn´t rather feature on that show, having got the only kinds of votes that count, than on a manufactured cynical, manipulative show on ITV which only serves to enrich Cowell and ITV executives? Let´s strike a blow for proper music, or at least properly popular music.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Merry Christmas - I'm Off to Spain

I'm off to sunny Spain for Christmas. I'll be back on 30th December when I shall be posting my review of the year.

Happy Christmas to you all, whether or not you believe in all of that stuff. Personally I believe that a man and his reindeer can fly and suspend the laws of physics to deliver presents to all of the good little boys and girls of this world. Perhaps he hitches a ride on a neutrino.

Apparently, 50% of Brits these days don't get involved in any form of religion. That doesn't stop us being enthusiastic about Christmas though. But, since we have to give up our consumerist ways, not because of what the Archbishop of Canterbury or Pope say but because we're all skint and need to pay back our debts, perhaps we should enjoy this Christmas while we can. Next year is probably not going to be much fun, and who knows what currency I shall be using if I head to Spain next year.  Best not to worry about it for a few blissful days.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

White and Fluffy Christmas

Merry Christmas

He laid her on the table
So white and clean and bare
His forehead wet with beads of sweat
He rubbed her here and there
He touched her neck and felt her breast
Then drooling felt her thigh
The slit was wet and all was set
He gave a joyous cry
The hole was wide
He looked inside
All was dark and murky
He rubbed his hands and stretched his arms
Then stuffed the Christmas turkey

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Thin Blue Line

A few weeks ago, Jeremy Clarkson was criticised and some called for him to be sacked for joking that striking public sector workers should be shot. Yesterday a policeman suggested that the boys in blue should consider doing the same to rioters. He was not joking. There has been disagreement and some criticism but no howls of outrage let alone calls for summary dismissal. Just thought I'd point that out.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Top Dog

Apparently the above is the most watched video on YouTube here in the UK. 70 million people have watched this talking dog, or at least it has been viewed 70 million times.

On top of last week's news that one of the top searches, along with the royal wedding et al, was 'what is scampi?' it does make you wonder what we used to do without this invaluable source of information and cutting edge entertainment. In the 1970s we in Britain used to gather around the television on Christmas Day and watch Morecambe and Wise and their galaxy of star guests. But, even at their peak, they could only muster a puny 26 million viewers. Still, at least we still like to watch creatures with short, hairy legs. What do you think of it so far?

Another British Veto

Presumably, given their opinion of the state of our economy, France will entirely approve of Britain's refusal to stump up some cash for the latest EU bailout fund, this time from the IMF. No? Quelle surprise.

This is actually another British veto in all but name, albeit one in which we are very far from isolated. It is also very much more significant than Cameron's triumph of a couple of weeks ago. This is Britain telling Europe that no, we will not pay for their continued economic folly. It's not our responsibility. They have the weapons in their armoury to deal with this crisis via the ECB. Alternatively they can bow to reality and start dismantling the Euro. Since they refuse to take these steps it is hard to see why external countries should go further into debt and send good money after bad.

It is probably Britain's destiny to be blamed for the eventual destruction of the Euro. That version of events will allow the political pygmies who claim to lead the Eurozone to maintain their delusion. We will probably have to live with this. But there is absolutely no reason why we should pay for it too.

Monday, 19 December 2011

2011 Claims Another Despot - Kim Jong Il Dies

What a truly terrible year it has been for the world's despots, madmen and dictators. The Arab Spring has deprived the world of the likes of Mubarak and Gadaffi; American Seals brought an end to Osama Bin Laden; no end of bare chested macho displays and hilarious treasure hunts could prevent Russians from booing and protesting about Putin and now everyone's favourite stack heeled, bouffant sporting, portly little maniac has finally succumbed to the sybaritic lifestyle he enjoyed while his people starved. Kim Jong Il is dead. Is it too much to ask that this splendid year could take us out on a real high and despatch Robert Mugabe in the next twelve days too?

It is probable that the footage of wailing North Koreans is not as faked as we would like to think, even if it is exaggerated. This vicious and hermetically sealed country has repressed and brainwashed its people so they bought the myths spun by the dear leader, who was genuinely revered, albeit never as much as his father was. After all, they don't get to watch Strictly and have no access to Perez Hilton. What else is there to revere? We just have different personality cults in the west. It almost makes you want to forgive the excesses of the press.

Nevertheless, people still risk their lives to escape from the privations and totalitarianism. What they think if and when they make it to the South, see the technology, the 24 hour lights and the plentiful food eaten by people who are now on average two or three inches taller than their northern cousins is something we can probably never truly understand given how alien the DPRK is to the rest of the planet.

And now the succession. Can the dynasty continue? Will it be business as usual?

The anointed heir, Kim Jong-Un is not ignorant, like his people, of just how much of a basket case his country is because he has been educated abroad and presumably has access to information denied to the masses. But, even assuming he would want to change things rather than indulge in the kind of excesses of his father, will he be allowed to by the vested interests who enjoy the good life? Dictators tend to become despotic because, for all of their power, they need to buy off enough people to endure. We have no idea if the new leader has the intelligence and charisma to dominate the country. It would take someone remarkable to turn it around and open it up, thus risking the wrath of the people if and when they discover the truth.

If he is a chip off his father's block, the chances are that we will soon see provocative rhetoric and possibly a renewal of hostilities with the south in some form. It's a tried and tested formula, albeit one which has lately been less successful. It's doubtful that Kim Jong-Un yet has the power or confidence to do anything different. The legacy of 2011 may be one we come to regret in 2012.


Apparently the problems with malnutrition in North Korea are worse than feared as it has even affected people's tear ducts. All of that anguish and not a tear in sight. Maybe they should teach the Stanislavsky method in time for the funeral.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

PMQs - The Full Collection Edition

No more PMQs this year of course which must come as a blessed relief to the leader of the Labour Party. Still, if you are missing it and wish to relive the ghosts of PMQs past this Christmas, then here they are served up for you in their entirety. Merry Christmas.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Britain's Splendid Isolation

If you want proof of just how fortunate we are in this country that our last two prime ministers (albeit one while he was chancellor) have kept us isolated from Europe and its dying currency, then you only have to look at the desperation of French bankers and ministers as they contemplate their imminent credit downgrading and lash out at us across the channel.

Are they right about the state of Britain's economy? Of course they are. That is why our government is risking electoral devastation by pushing through cuts up to and beyond the next election. The markets have rewarded us with record low interest rates on our debt and the maintenance of that AAA rating because they believe in our ability to tackle the deficit and, thanks to our non participation in the great Euro debacle, we can take various measures, from setting our own interest rates to printing money, to ensure that a default is extremely unlikely.

France cannot do these things. It chose to dispense with these levers when it joined the Euro. It is no point throwing a hissy fit, however entertaining it may be for us, when their creditors get nervous.

But the other major difference between Britain and France, quite apart from their stubborn adherence to all things European and Euro denominated, is that this country by and large backs austerity - although someone ought to tell the Labour Party. France has a history of protests and strikes, which is why successive governments have backed down when confronted by civil disobedience and the strikes for which they have become so famous. That is also why nobody wants to buy Greek debt, because we can all see that the Greek people don't want austerity and don't want to pay higher taxes, or indeed any taxes at all if they can help it. History teaches that the French may well cut up rough if asked to make sacrifices for Le Belle Euro. They also face an election in less than six months time and may well elect someone in even more denial than our own Labour Party or their current preening president. That could see them being downgraded again. What will they do then, declare war on us? Perhaps we could take it in turn to use aircraft carriers.

What European leaders seem incapable of getting into their heads is that bond market is not some Anglo Saxon conspiracy, it is the sovereign equivalent of their bank manager taking a sharp intake of breath when asked to risk more of his money. They see a Euro project which is ignoring basic economics and throwing ever more borrowed money at a chronic debt problem. It would be irresponsible for the ratings agencies and those investing our pensions not to draw attention to the problems and potential problems of countries who cannot or will not face the reality of their situation.

No doubt the next stage of this game will be that the French will seek to blame the next Euro crisis on Britain's veto. Yet the deal of last week is also unravelling, vetoes are being entertained by other countries. It's just that they didn't have the balls to say so last Friday.

We are looking a lot less isolated now, yet it still feels like splendid isolation. But perhaps we should decline the invitation to attend that next crisis summit as observers. Until the rest of Europe accepts reality and confronts it with measures they currently refuse to entertain, there really is no point in these endless meetings that achieve nothing. Our ministers and officials should stay at home. As our French friends have so helpfully pointed out, we ought to be saving money wherever possible.

RIP Christopher Hitchens 1949 - 2011

Many people will write about Christopher Hitchens, who has died of cancer at the age of 62, today and this weekend. They will do so because they knew him, because they enjoyed his writing, because they admired his remarkable mind, his integrity, his honesty, his love of language and his intellectual consistency, something which meant, to the chagrin of those on the left, that he left them behind after his Trotskyite youth and even backed the Iraq war. Sadly I never met the man or got to see one of his remarkable performances in debate after debate on any number of subjects. I wish I had. The saddest thing about the godless life that atheists must face is that remarkable brains like that of Christopher Hitchens perish and all that they were is lost.

Some will say today, and indeed are saying, that sometimes he was a polemicist and contrarian just for the sake of it. Perhaps so. But I like to think that it was not the controversy he was courting so much as the thrill of the argument and of making it in public forums. His photographic memory enabled him to marshall any number of arguments and usually to win. Perhaps in the end he felt the need to use his mind to make him  a kind of intellectual gladiator, a performer who enjoyed the sound and thrill of public approbation. However much he believed in the various arguments he made (and I doubt there were many he didn't fully believe in), few would argue he was ever less than a fearsome opponent.

And to the last Hitchens was an atheist. Happily the disease that killed him never diminished his intelligence and sagacity and so there was no deathbed conversion, no enfeebled plea for redemption. He was able to go to his grave knowing that death was the end of him, that the world's religions are wrong and that there would be nothing left of him when his heart finally stopped save for his books, essays and innumerable articles. That is a kind of afterlife, the one he wanted. Christopher Hitchens will live on in print, video and in the minds of everyone who saw him in action.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Tube Drivers Try To Extort A Christmas Bonus

Politicians have been keen these last few years on pinning the blame on greedy bankers for our current plight. This, of course, is not without justification. Some banks and bankers did indeed behave appallingly and recklessly during the good years and seem to have got off scot free with their mega bonuses  - the Evening Standard had a report earlier this week of one blowing 70k in a night on booze and tips in one of London's top restaurants.

But please let us not suppose that greed and lack of principles is restricted to Britain's gilded financial sector. And, let us not forget, it is a huger earner and tax payer.

What excuse do London's tube drivers have for their behaviour? Yesterday they voted overwhelmingly (for once on a turnout of 50%) to strike on Boxing Day for the second year running. Why? Because London Underground is refusing to pay them triple time plus a day off in lieu. Oh and working should also be voluntary.

Those of us who also work or have worked shifts can only look on in astonishment. Tube drivers are in receipt of salaries of £45,000 for 35 hour weeks for their jobs which are largely automated and by no means stressful compared to London's considerably less well remunerated bus drivers for instance. They also receive 7 weeks holiday, can look forward to final salary pensions unlike most and have recently extracted a bonus payment for deigning to turn up to do their jobs without a hitch during next year's Olympics.

How is this kind of extortion better than bankers? One could argue, given that the unions bleat constantly about providing a service to the public, that it is actually worse. It's considerably more cynical. Perhaps we should hit them with a bonus tax.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

PMQs 14th December 2011 - The End of Term Edition

Prior to today's PMQs, the BBC assured us that the pictures of Nick Clegg sat on the front bench were real and had not been shot in a separate location and added later with televisual trickery. Nick's flakiness and desire to hide so as to avoid potential embarrassment has, it is fair to say, rebounded on him. Some say he would be replaced if only someone suitable could be found. Yet this is the party of high principle and elevated morality. This is the party of St Vince, who only this week has been spreading word, through minions, that he has once again considered the nuclear option but decided instead to forego his own comforts and principles to stay on board and help contain those dastardly Tories. A grateful nation sighed in relief.

And of course the Lib Dems also have Chris Huhne, that exemplar of modesty and public service. He is a gift not only to this grateful nation but to the whole world having just saved it from devastating climate change with the kind of agreement that the EU loves - full of gaps and blank bits to be filled in later, preferably by other countries like the French and Germans. Huhne plans to build so many of those terribly useful wind turbines that the country may well take off if we have storms like that seen at the weekend. Perhaps that is his solution - to fly to sunnier climes so that we can save on heating. They certainly don't generate much electricity. Not that this has stopped Huhne, who trusts implicitly in his own judgement and lectured the Cabinet about how negotiations should be done. It is said  that when he heard that scientists had discovered the god particle, he assumed they meant him and had his spads arrange a picture opportunity.

But anyway, to today's questions. Nick was in his place and smiling bravely, like someone looking forward to a couple of weeks off. Forrest actually started quite confidently, perhaps fired up by a decent performance on Monday against Dave. And on paper this should have been an easy session for him. There have been more coalition divided stories, much rancour between Tories with their tails up and Lib Dems sulking about us being isolated in Europe. Add to that today's unemployment figures and surely Forrest couldn't mess up. Think again.

Forrest got started on the unemployment figures and actually managed to sound quite statesmanlike, asking awkward questions around Cameron's statements at the start of the year. Cameron had to resort to his default replies about what the government is doing, disappointing and tragic figures, that youth unemployment had increased under Labour too, how much there was still to do and how much worse it would be if Labour's policies, such as they are, were followed. All true of course, but rather repetitive. Yet it was effective. Forrest was once again failing to make the most of some very promising material. But at least he was at this stage managing a no scoring draw.

And then it got worse.  Forrest decided to have a go about Europe and Dave pounced with Flashmanlike ruthlessness. The line was pre-prepared of course but Dave has the gift of making it look otherwise. Forrest labours over jokes, messes them up and sometimes fails to include the punchline. Dave points this out with relish. The Labour benches wince.

Forrest hesitantly managed to put over what was presumably supposed to be humour about the travails of Nick Clegg. This was Dave's opportunity. He did not hide, he said that there were differences between Tories and Lib Dems on Europe. They disagreed he said. And then came the slam dunk: 'But it's not that bad. It's not like we're brothers.'

Tories and even Lib Dems guffawed. Nick allowed himself a smile. Labour MPs sank into their seats. Forrest was more deflated than a balloon on Twelfth Night.

And that was effectively the end of the session. Dave danced around Forrest, made jibes about his flip flopping on the issue of the veto and finished with a flourish as he said that the Labour leader had at least delivered on his own start of year promise to unite his party. They want Santa to bring them a new leader. Like all of the best jokes it had the ring of truth to it.

And so, yet again, Forrest somehow contrived to get a kicking when he ought to have been dishing one out. Labour are failing to resonate with the public on the economy and so their attacks on unemployment simply don't wash. Their attacks on the EU have similarly fallen on stony ground. The Tories are now ahead of Labour in the polls, a remarkable achievement given the state of the economy. Thank god, or Chris Huhne, for the EU.

This was one of Dave's more clear cut wins. Though Forrest has occasionally prevailed during 2011, most PMQs have followed the pattern we saw today and the timing was disastrous just ahead of the recess. Dave even managed to take the heat off Nick Clegg. Labour's only consolation is that Tory backbenchers will have mixed feelings about that.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Okay, I Might Have Been Wrong

Last month I wrote this post about science and scientists and their tendency to be treated as dispassionate, objective tellers of complete truth unsullied by human traits like ambition, hubris, arrogance and vanity. Anyone who knows anything about the history of any of the major sciences will attest to this truth and its worrying implications when politicians talk about 'the science' as if it is unimpeachable and beyond question.  You only have to look at our idiot Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who was lecturing the Cabinet this morning about how to go about getting deals at international summits and is proposing to erect 30,000 wind turbines in and around this country despite their tendency to not work when it is not windy and too windy and even to catch fire during winter gales.

However, in that same post I also expressed the opinion that it was very likely that scientists would soon announce that they have been unable to find the so called god particle, the Higgs Boson. It seems that I was wrong. Or at least I might be. They're not sure yet, but it's looking good. Having said that, this does tend to prove my central point, that the universe often defies expectations, in this case mine, and throws up surprising, perplexing and often downright confusing results the more we investigate it. Look at those annoying little neutrinos going around at above the speed of light. What business have they doing that?

Still it behoves me to show a little of the humility that I accuse some scientists of lacking. I was wrong. Probably. Time will tell. Whatever time is.

Monday, 12 December 2011

If Europe Ignores Britain's Veto and Carries on Regardless, That Just Proves The Sceptics Are Right About It

The press are, as one might expect, pretty evenly divided about David Cameron's veto last week. The Lib Dems are similarly divided which is entertaining for us all. On the one hand they have hitched their wagon to this coalition and cannot rock the boat too much because of their opinion poll state. On the other hand they love the EU in a way that few of their countrymen understand or sympathise with. If only we could have an election to put them out of our misery. What about it Dave? Two bold moves in a week? They would be so much happier going back to being sanctimonious and always right on the opposition benches.

And what expressions must Nick Clegg be rehearsing for the PM's statement this afternoon? If only he really had two faces instead of simply being two faced; he could scowl at those evil Euro sceptics on the benches behind him whilst adopting smiling equanimity at the front.

But, amusing as the tribulations of the Lib Dems can be, let us move on. The line in much of the lefty media is that Cameron has isolated Britain thanks to the use of his veto. This, they seem to think, is a bad thing. They also seem to be under the impression that it is a new development, having presumably paid little attention to the last 40 years. Were things better when Labour strived to be at the centre of Europe? Were we rewarded for pushing through the Lisbon treaty and ignoring a prior commitment to put a constitution to a referendum? What was our reward for handing back part of our rebate?

It should also be noted that Forrest has confirmed that he too would not have signed a new treaty. Now unless he means that he would have done a Brown and gone and signed it a few hours after everyone else, how can he complain about Cameron isolating us? S and M would not give Cameron a deal and so he had no real choice. Forrest, the great bandwagon jumper, is now trying to jump on two of them at the same time, even though they are heading in different directions. 

But perhaps we are all missing a point here. Whatever you think of Cameron's use of the veto, we can probably all agree that he is entitled to deploy it if he honestly thinks he has no other option to protect Britain's interests. That, after all, is what the veto is for. 

Yet the argument seems to be that Europe will go ahead anyway with reforms and new regulations and Britain will have no say. Well does this not prove the point of we Euro sceptics? Europe, we argue, is an undemocratic, federalist steamroller that rides roughshod over the wishes of the peoples of the EU, ignores their democratically expressed wishes and keeps heading towards its goals regardless. Now, it seems, they are perfectly willing to do so even when a government uses its veto. Remember the veto is a legitimate device which was put into treaties to protect national interests. The Europhiles are acknowledging that it too is worthless if it is used in a certain way that attracts the disapprobation of the French and Germans. They are acknowledging that Britain can either toe the federalist, collectivist, consensus line or can go hang. It is a veto that doesn't actually veto anything. How very very European.

And this is also why the Euro is such an unholy mess. The EU groupthink prevailed and nobody was allowed to dissent. Now, when everyone else can see that it cannot survive in its present form, EU governments turn on anyone who points this out or who will not assist them in their mass suicide pact. The result, even if they manage to struggle on, throwing good money after bad and imposing endless austerity and recession on their countries, will be that the Euro will eventually decouple. They might get away with just dumping Greece. But then they could have done that months ago and saved themselves and us a grim couple of years. That's what resistance to dissent does. It's why most of us prefer democracy and freedom of speech, testing ideas and even visions through open debate.  

Is this the beginning of the end of Britain's full membership of the EU? It looks like we may have no real choice. But that isn't a failure of diplomacy, unless your idea of diplomacy is to accept anything and everything proposed by other states for fear of antagonising them. Europe has been here before.This is just history repeating itself in a new 21st century bureaucratic form.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Britain Isolated? We Are Just Where We Always Were

Britain is isolated according to large sections of the media and commentariat today. David Cameron committed the sin of ignoring and defying a self selecting, self satisfied elite in Brussels and listening to his own conscience and, more importantly, his party and electorate. If only they could replace him with a technocrat, or one of those politicians gone native like that nice Peter Mandelson, a man who can be trusted to think the Orwellian groupthink required of those who cannot win the argument.

Part of the narrative of last night's bulletins and this morning's papers was that Cameron was outmanoeuvred by S and M, and in particular by Sarkozy. In fact we are where we have always been with regard to the grand projet - deeply suspicious and grudging about every attempt to bully us into a union we do not want. Sarkozy manages to get what he wants in Europe because, for reasons we in Britain simply cannot understand, the whole of the rest of the union, even those who recently threw off the shackles of Soviet domination and our cousins in Ireland, buy into this idea of ever closer union, of pooling sovereignty for what is alleged to be the greater good in unelected and unaccountable Brussels, of allowing themselves to be dominated by France and Germany who talk of solidarity and common cause as long as it is their brand of solidarity and common cause. Cameron was forced into vetoing the treaty because France would not compromise and tried to force through, under the guise of a Euro crisis, measures that would damage Britain which had the good sense to stay out.

The European vision is anathema to Britain. We joined a common market and got swept along, through a process similar to that we have seen these last few weeks, into a union we did not want. It's why we stayed out of the Euro. Whereas the rest of the continent saw a vision of a united Europe making common cause under one currency which would challenge the hegemony of the mighty dollar, we couldn't see past the flawed economics and deluded wishful thinking. We still can't.

The French and Germans are blaming Anglo Saxon markets for the Euro crisis, because to do otherwise is to accept its flaws - although they tacitly do that when proposing reforms that never worked the first time around. But those same markets are just doing what markets do, spotting flaws and flowing to safety.

Is Britain isolated? Well only with regard to the EU itself. In fact Britain is a more internationalist centre than anywhere else in this continent and perhaps the world. We just don't see the attraction of tying ourselves inextricably to a construct that seeks to homogenise and control us while simultaneously making us less competitive with the rest of the world. Perhaps Churchill was right when he proposed a United States of Europe, but with Britain staying out as per our history and traditions.

And this new impasse, this inevitable impasse, which was always going to happen the moment the Maastricht Treaty was signed and when we were forced into a Lisbon Treaty without a vote thanks to a now complaining Labour Party, is a fantastic opportunity for us. Why can't we go our own way? Why must we accept this consensus which is so alien to us? Since the French are so hostile to Anglo Saxon economics and markets, how convenient that it can be contained on this little island across the sea. We should invite all like minded bankers and free traders to come and join us.

We should now take this opportunity and become a test bed for which system works best. Decoupled from the EU with its stifling rules and regulations and limited to a free trade agreement - remember, Britain actually runs a trade deficit with the EU, it is hardly in their interests to break off a relationship with one of their best customers and the fifth largest economy in the world. We could free ourselves of European regulations, take control of our own borders, employment policy, immigration policy, protect our own fisheries and farms and be free to lower taxes, becoming an offshore haven for businesses keen to rid themselves of the dead hand of Brussels.

We already have the advantage of our own currency, central bank and a government newly determined not to accept diktats about how we should spend our own money and tax ourselves. Britain is a boom waiting to happen if only we free ourselves from the illogical and transparently false notion that Europe is the path to prosperity. The 26 have this weekend taken the decision to embark down a path of slow or negative growth because they are tied together and their leaders cannot break these mysterious bonds of collegiality which makes elected politicians ignore their own electorates and sign up to needless pain and sacrifice for fear of upsetting Merkel and Sarkozy  and maybe going the way of Berlusconi and Papendreou.

You only have to see the reaction of our 'partners' to Cameron on Friday to see what we must do. They cannot understand our attitude and become furious at dissent from the groupthink. Sure we are heading towards a cliff, they seem to be saying, but at least we are doing it together, unlike the Brits. 

Clearly it is time for a parting of the ways. We did them and us a favour by staying out of the Euro. We should now do the same by leaving the EU altogether. It will be a relief for all concerned. Their only worry is that, starting with Ireland, they may all see how good it is outside and come and join us. As ever in Europe, Britain must stand alone for a while before rationality and good sense prevail.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Go Dave! Britain Presses the Reset Button in Europe

This time last week, we had all the furore surrounding Jeremy Clarkson's joke about strikers being shot. Most were agreed in the end that it had indeed been a joke and that those who jumped on the sack him bandwagon were idiots. This week, people like me have been criticised for making the 'offensive' comparison between David Cameron and Neville Chamberlain. This, opined some, meant we were effectively calling the Germans Nazis. Actually, no we weren't. It was a sodding metaphor. When did people start taking things so literally?

I know that we in Britain have a tendency to bang on about the war, but is it really so difficult for people to see the parallels if we leave aside the genocide and war crimes? Germany and France, instead of trying single handedly to dominate Europe, as they did at intervals for the previous 200 years, are now getting together to do it. In so doing they are setting aside democracy across the continent, setting up modern day Vichy regimes to do their bidding in recalcitrant member states and demanding the right of veto over the taxes and spending of sovereign nations, including the long desired aim of equalising taxes across Euro member states. It may be a softer, 21st century style takeover, but it is a takeover all the same. Are the Irish really going to go along with this? This is the thin end of a very big and damaging wedge.

David Cameron has delighted and surprised us all by drawing a line under French and German demands and saying no. They have responded with truculence and standard French rudeness. Yet all that Cameron was asking for was the kind of protection for a core British industry that the French get for their agriculture and resist with every trick in the book. Cameron's was not an unreasonable demand, and yet S and M, perhaps dizzy with power after having despatched two prime ministers of sovereign countries in a month, said no. They may regret this. Now, more than 20 years since the fall of Margaret Thatcher, we finally have a PM who is willing to say no to them and doesn't mind all of that talk on the BBC about being isolated.

And this deal simply reveals the depth of S & M's  delusion. The crisis in the Euro, they seem to be saying, is the consequence, not of a flawed enterprise which was always doomed to failure, but of Anglo Saxon speculators. They wanted to regulate away this bit of freedom too, the freedom of lenders to demand a fair price for their money which may well end up not being repaid.

And let us not forget that this was supposed to be another one of those summits that was the last chance to save the Euro. Have they done so? Of course not. And this has nothing to do with Britain's veto. The problems with the Euro remain as intractable as ever, because Europe's leaders will not accept its fundamental flaws. The rules they are bringing in were there at the outset and ignored. How is that going to change?

This is not a problem that can be solved by giving more power to an enelected, technocratic government, or a bureaucrat in Brussels with a red pen empowered to veto national budgets. This is a problem of countries shoe horned into a currency and forced to compete with Germany and other northern states without the usual monetary levers to pull. Now they are having their fiscal levers removed too.  By signing up to this French German diktat, the governments of Europe are being bullied into accepting a lost decade or more that, but for the lack of bombed cities, will not feel so very different from the ravages of war.

And so it falls to Britain once again to stand alone and fight for what is right and defensible. David Cameron has shown himself to have the bulldog spirit. He should take this as a starting point and begin the long process of either extracting us from this mess or forcing reform by showing how much better off we are outside the Euro. This may take a while. But we can wait.

So 3 cheers for Dave for doing the right thing. He, as Boris said, played a blinder, one that history will judge kindly. Britain is accustomed to being sidelined by Europe and enjoying only occasional victories. Perhaps though, instead of war metaphors, we should simply treat Dave as having returned from a famous sporting victory, like that of 1966. We could even put him on an open decked double decker bus and cheer him through the streets of London.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Let's Be Beastly to the Germans (and the French)

I think I've identified why Britain is still having problems with our 'European partners' over the Euro and our insistence upon going our own way. It's because we have been too nice about it. We should have been more smug and insufferable at having our scepticism and criticism vindicated. We should have rubbed their noses in their mistakes and blinkered stupidity. We should have been more European.

Did you see those pictures of Barroso tellling reporters what he expected of the assembled leaders at this latest crisis summit.

"What I expect from all Heads of State and Government is they do not come saying what they can not do but what they will do for Europe.All the world is watching us. And what the world awaits from us is not more national problems but European solutions." 

This was clearly meant for David Cameron, a man representing a sceptical and at times hostile nation to Barroso's dreams. Yet Cameron represents a nation that had the good sense to stay out of the Euro. That is something we should be very grateful about and Europe should be too. If Britain had been part of the Euro we would, thanks to the incontinent spending of the last government, be endangering the project to the point where even Barroso might now have to admit that the game was up.

This of course is supposed to be another one of those last minute chances to cure the Euro and save us all from devastation. Except of course it won't be. The solutions offered up by S & M are all long term ones, the sort that will need treaties and long discussions and negotiations before they become reality. It should also be noted that many of the remedies are those that were actually part of the original planning for the Euro established at Maastricht but which were ignored for political reasons. That's how Greece got in. So all of this talk about new sanctions and rules is actually irrelevant, it's political will that counts and, as has been demonstrated, Europe's politicians are always prepared to fudge things when it suits them.

And this is what David Cameron should be telling his insufferable and arrogant fellow leaders this weekend. Britain believes that your pet project is as doomed now as it ever was. If you wish to go down the same self destructive route and drive your people into penury then that is your affair. But we refuse to go down with you. Britain wishes to become semi detached, and even that may prove to be a hard sell.

Bringing powers back from Europe is not a sideshow, it is not a distraction when we are supposed to be saving the Euro. It is the whole point. We were right and you were all wrong. We had the good sense to stay out. We will not stand in the way of your folly, but we demand the right to go our own way and require guarantees that Britain will not be dragged in and taxed to pay for more of your arrogant, blinkered stupidity. That may not be the diplomatic way of putting it. But then diplomacy and compromise is what landed us in this mess in the first place. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

PMQs 7th December 2011 - The Let's Not Be Beastly to the Germans Edition

Forrest today was sat between his shadow chancellor and shadow home secretary - a couple of Balls. There's a joke there somewhere. Or is it a metaphor?

The prime minister on the other hand was between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he had his increasingly strident Euro sceptics demanding some red meat, possibly attached to a handbag. On the other hand, he had to appease his coalition partners and the likes of Ken Clarke, who has given one of his regular, unhelpful, candid interviews today. It was a tough balancing act.

And Forrest started well. His first three questions started with one of those short, sharp ones that have been most successful for him. If only he was always so concise and pertinent.  What powers, he asked Dave, will he be repatriating. Dave went into full bluster mode. You can always tell when he cannot think of an answer, because he tells us that he is about to give it if only they would shut up and listen. Sometimes the rowdy atmosphere of the Commons is his best ally for evading questions.

Forrest had another go. This time Dave shot back with Labour's ignominious efforts in Europe but Forrest shot back with a line (well delivered for a change) about hand wringing instead of hand bagging. It was all going well for  him.

On either side it was difficult to tell if his two Balls were pleased or not. Their nodding didn't seem as emphatic as usual. Cameron rounded off this first section with  a decent line about Labour surrendering power while his party (or should it be government - whoops) protected them. But he was clearly rattled, and struggling to find a line that worked with regard to his earlier promises about repatriation of powers, now watered down so as not to upset his friend Angela. He was not helped by the fact that so many of his own backbenchers were clearly lining up unhelpful questions. One up to Forrest, who called it half time and regrouped. A tactical error?

Forrest was only sat down for a few minutes, but when he returned he had lost the advantage. What followed was the usual back and forth over the economy, with Forrest attacking Dave over his alleged women's problem and Dave hitting back with snipes at Labour's credibility on the economy. Dave was better at this subject, precisely because Labour remain deluded and difficult to take seriously. And as usual Forrest revealed just how flat footed and witless he can be allowing Flashman Dave free rein. The government, said Forrest, was postponing a luxury jet tax. Dave could hardly believe his luck. They had 13 years to bring one in, he pointed out gleefully. Now their two last leaders are jetting around in them anyway. He might have added that one of them is still being paid to sit in the Commons too but the point was won. Dave had grabbed an unlikely equaliser and Forrest had once more let him off the hook.

Forrest actually performed the best he has been for a while today, and yet at the same time exposed why he is failing so badly. Faced by a PM in difficulty, he did well but lacked the nous and ruthlessness to press home his advantage. Dave bounced back in his tigger-like way, and managed by the end to at least get an honourable draw. Labour will have enjoyed his discomfiture over Europe, and yet what would they do? What is their alternative? What would their negotiating hand be? That is the line coming from Downing Street tonight. Dave was being guarded today because he doesn't want to let his interlocutors over the next couple of days see his hand before he is ready. Hmmmm.

It of course remains to be seen what, if anything, the PM brings back from this latest summit. Will he make the most of this crisis? Has he again been caught out promising too much to both sides, with everyone destined to be disappointed or worse? Will he be prepared to get tough if our 'EU partners' say no. The last PMQs of this session, next week, could end up being much tougher again,  and not necessarily at the hands of the leader of the Labour Party, with his remarkable  ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It's no wonder he is missing from his party's leaflets for next week's by election. It's all been a bit of a balls up.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Are You Chamberlain or Churchill, Mr Cameron?

Last week, our prime minister was reported to have been gleeful that the unions had been stupid enough to call a pointless strike. This served the useful purpose of allowing him to stand up to the bully boys and point to the left wing instincts of the Labour leadership with its ruinous consequences for us all in these tough times.

All of which makes the Conservative Party's stance on Europe all the more difficult to fathom. Why on earth would we rule out a referendum on  whatever the Germans and French are in the process of cooking up before we know what it is? Why not hold out the prospect of a referendum as a killer hand in the game of poker that will soon get underway? Why are we so afraid to do what other countries do and hold out for a deal that suits us? If kicking the unions is smart politics then how smart would it be to take on Europe in this avidly sensible, sceptical island?

The line is that we are in danger of losing influence in Europe if the French and Germans get their way. But what influence? We are, thanks to our general hostility to the grand projet, usually outnumbered in all matters of consequence on which we have given up our veto. They want to go an entirely different route to the one which Britain, still ruled by democratically elected politicians rather than useful technocrats, is comfortable with. What annoys them is that we were right about the Euro and warned of the chaos and crisis which could result. They are now in the process of ensuring we doubters are permanently sidelined.

Here is a chance for us to make the numbers work for us for a change. Europe is keen to not let this crisis go to waste, why shouldn't we do the same?

The Conservative leadership is fond of telling us that they have passed a safeguard in the European Union Act which means that no more powers can be handed to Brussels without a referendum consulting the British people. But now this means that our ministers are reluctant to press for a deal for fear of triggering that referendum. Consequently we are now in danger of being even more marginalised for fear of asking the British people what they think and getting the usual answer that is unacceptable to our EU partners. How they must be sniggering in Berlin and Paris.

As Dan Hannan argues, the solution is to go for a renegotiation which is then put to a referendum. It should be made explicit that a no vote would be treated as a vote for Britain leaving the EU. That would concentrate a few minds. It might even get us the kind of deal that would deliver unto Dave something that might persuade even me that we should stay in this dysfunctional nightmare. It might even set a benchmark and leave the rest of the EU looking on enviously and bring about the much needed reform of the EU. That's what democracy, or the threat of it, can achieve. It might even win you the next election, Mr Cameron.

They Just Don't Get It Part 2

As part of a series dissecting and attempting to explain the ongoing financial and fiscal crisis afflicting the west, Robert Peston on Sunday came up with all kinds of explanations and theories, some going back as far as 1987 and the Big Bang in the City of London. Those dastardly bankers again.

He also, inevitably, visited China and its booming factories full of hard working, thrifty, aspirational people on low pay (even the managers). One was a middle manager who was earning about £300 a month and saving a large part of it for medical and education bills.

Cut to yesterday and the latest 'study' on August's riots (an academic growth industry now that the climate change industry is so saturated) from my alma mater, the LSE. This was reported widely in the media and  almost a whole edition of Newsnight was dedicated to it with one of those irritating and wholly unrevealing big debates the programme does from time to time. Ah, said the usual suspects, against one outnumbered government minister, the riots were a cry for help/ anger at the police/ our disaffected youth/ economic hopelessness, delete according to taste. This was because the so called disaffected youth had told them this. Apparently spin and lies is something that only politicians and lobby groups engage in. Perhaps someone should do a study into why shameless thieves and arsonists later become ashamed and engage in sophistry to justify themselves long after the fact when the journalists and academic researchers come calling.  Now that would be revealing.

Because, according to such studies and certain sections of the media and political establishment, it's all about the cuts you see. Never mind that they have hardly started yet and public spending is in fact increasing - the average rioter probably never watches the news anyway. No, those who are against cuts of any kind and are angry at the state of the economy and keen to find someone to blame have alighted on these riots and last week's strikes as a cry for help from angry people who no longer have a stake in our society. The bearded, sanctimonious tit otherwise known as the Archbishop of Canterbury, has also weighed in, opining that the riots are a consequence of our consumer society and the hopelessness of those who cannot afford new phones and trainers. It doesn't say whether or not he conducted a study or even bothered to talk to anyone about this before disseminating his opinions. Perhaps he asked his imaginary friend.

Yet let us contrast this with our poorly paid middle manager in China. Does she aspire for things? She most certainly does. Does she know about the various consumer goods available, although probably out of reach? Definitely, her country makes most of them. Does she want to better herself? Yes, she is saving up to do so via education. She wants to go abroad to study. But she is saving for this. Not for her the student grants and EMAs of Britain's youth, who whine at the thought that they may have to go without things that they cannot afford. Not for her a society that pays for her healthcare. China expects her to save to educate herself and her children.

China of course is very far from being a perfect society. But there is a reason that it has become the workshop of the world and why the cost of living is so much lower despite those vast mega cities it is building. It is because Chinese people, and those from the east in general, have not had inculcated in them this notion that they have unlimited rights and that their every whim and desire is something that should be available to them immediately. For them the struggle to save is a natural part of life, and makes them appreciate what they have and eventually get all the more.

The EMA in this country is a classic case of politicians creating an instant gratification society in which working and saving has become something that mugs do. That is why the riots took place. People were told that the country couldn't afford things, they were told that they have rights but no responsibilities. They saw free stuff and they knew our police would stand by and do nothing for fear of being accused of being heavy handed bully boys.

Fortunately, the vast majority of people, even the poor who have no jobs or poorly paid jobs and cannot afford designer clothes and flat screen televisions, were horrified by the riots and the greed and stayed away. Yet the leader of our national church, instead of praising the moral majority, seeks to excuse the greedy and feckless. It is precisely this attitude which has spawned our debt ridden, uncompetitive society, which is carrying millions who see no reason why they should struggle and strive and put off that which they demand today paid for by someone else, or, if all else fails, stolen from them instead.


Monday, 5 December 2011

A Christmas Present from S & M: It's A Wonderful Life for Eurocrats

The press lately have taken to calling Sarkozy and Merkel, the two headed beast currently holding all of our futures in their hands, Merkozy. Given what their pet project and various convoluted solutions to this self induced crisis has done to us all however, and may still do, perhaps it would be more appropriate to call them S & M.

This is another one of those 'only a few days to save the Euro' weeks. We have been here before of course. Often. Each time S & M come out, announce some deal with all kinds of details missing, each time the markets believe the spin and start a buying frenzy in relief, before it all unravels and we are plunged into the depths of despond culiminating in a new countdown for them all to get together again and save us once more. This time however they are doing it just in time to ruin everyone's Christmas.

If this were a Hollywood movie of course S & M would be given the opportunity by an angel to go back, change history and ensure that all of this happened differently. The real question is would they take it. After all, as Jacque Delors told us at the weekend, while the Euro is clearly a flawed project it's heart was in the right place. It's all the fault of those dastardly markets. Or of Anglo Saxons. Or the Greeks. It's certainly not the fault of the deluded dreamers who ignored economic reality and continue to do so now. If an angel called Clarence  were to arrive now looking to earn his wings, S & M would screw him just as they have screwed us all. Rewrite history? That's anti European. We just lack their vision. The only alternative is war and economic ruin.We must keep ploughing on regardless. The EU and its currency cannot be allowed to fail however many people it throws out of jobs and into the queues for soup kitchens.

If S & M had any sense and any sense of responsibility, they would even now, while they talk about saving the Euro, be instructing civil servants to prepare for its end or partial dismantling. We tried and we failed. There is no Clarence to save us from our present, but we can at least change the future and save us from the slow decline to depression and internecine fighting to which we are heading. The best Christmas present would be to announce, while the continent is still hungover on 26th December, that the Euro will end in its present form on 1st January. There is no easy answer to our present predicament. But how many more of these summits do we need to have before S & M realise the present course isn't working? Anyone would think they are enjoying it.