Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Veto Vetoed

Back in December, when Cameron vetoed a new EU Treaty, Forrest adopted his best serious face and voice and told us that the PM was isolating us in Europe. He actually gave a fairly decent performance in the Commons, so long as you didn't pay too much attention to what he was actually saying and his constantly pivoting position.

Fast forward to today and Dave has, perhaps inevitably, bowed to pressure and gone along with EU demands to let the Euro countries use EU institutions. He has done so without getting the protections for the City that he wanted. But he has also done so making the calculation that this is by no means a done deal and that it will almost certainly unravel as various governments backtrack when they get home and realise what they have done and inconvenient democracy, which tends to at least slow down the juggernaut that is EU integration, intervenes. Ireland's annoying (if you are a Eurocrat) insistence on holding referendums is a possible impediment and there is a most inconvenient roadblock looming in the form of a French presidential election. If that goes the way we are all assuming it will then all bets are off. The French are so much better at saying Non than the British. After all they think the EU is theirs to do with as they like. Dave has taken a gamble but the odds are favourable he will win his bet.

None of this will stop Forrest and Labour coming out today, fresh from forcing the hand of Stephen Hester and reneging on their own contract as only politicians can do, and accusing Dave of selling out Britain. It's opportunist politics at its most egregious. Are they about to become Eurosceptic? Will they try to prevent Britain from giving more to the IMF? Are we no longer trying to be at the centre of Europe? What about the influence they accused Cameron of abandoning a few weeks ago?

Cameron's position is defensible on the grounds that the Euro countries need to sort themselves out for fear of the catclysm that could otherwise result for us all. It is debatable whether this deal will achieve that and, given the way we know these things work, it is most likely that it won't. But Cameron and Hague have probably concluded that they cannot be seen to be standing in the way of that because of the dangers to our own economy. They are reapportioning blame. The chances are, as I said at the beginning of the year, that the Euro will muddle through its current difficulties but will also prevent any growth in the economies that are currently struggling and create the need for the fiscal transfers Germany is so steadfastly against. The danger of a disorganised crash of the whole project has diminished but remains there in the background.

I'm not pretending for a moment that this was an easy decision for Cameron. But ultimately it will be seen as a missed opportunity. Britain needs to detach itself from this slow motion car crash. We can at least content ourselves that we are now semi-detached. But we also know how the EU works. It extracts concessions incrementally and this is part of that pattern. In December, Dave looked as though he was standing up to them in a way that even Margaret Thatcher never dared to. Now he has rejoined the club again to stop them being so beastly to him. We will all live to regret that sooner or later.


Looking on the bright side, at least this time Nick Clegg felt able to sit alongside his good friend Dave to see him deliver the good news about Europe.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Time For A New Cog For Top Gear?

Top Gear, in its reinvented form, is now ten years old. It's a ten years that has gone by as fast as the supercars that are its raison d'etre. And I am a fan. I have watched from the beginning and indeed used to watch it in the old days when Jeremy Clarkson was just a jobbing reporter, albeit the best one.

But I don't think I am alone in seeing that the show is growing a little tired, a little predictable. The Christmas Special was typically unChristmassy but it was also decidedly unspecial, and I'm not one who was offended by the jokes. It all seemed forced, three men trying hard to be wacky and controversial and only succeeding in the latter.

Of course the challenges keep getting bigger, better and bolder thanks to the shows' stunning international success and consequent budget; but the ideas are running out, the banter is getting more forced, the unscripted bits are looking ever more scripted.

Perhaps the time has come to inject some new blood, and I'm not talking about yet another fresh Stig. The weakest link in the show is actually Richard Hammond, who has always been a DJ or daytime TV star who found himself unexpectedly in a hit peaktime show but cannot quite throw off his origins. Where May and Clarkson genuinely love cars and are clever and witty, Hammond has to rely on his boyish charm, which appeals to the laydeez. That is the paradox of Top Gear; it has never been a show for blokes per se. It is just a show that celebrates blokeishness; and women rather like that.

But this is why they need some new blood. They've done it before. People tend to forget that James May was not in the first series of the reinvented show. His slot was occupied by a chubby used car dealer named Jason Dawe. But that was in the days before the show had found its feet and indeed its niche. Back then it still thought it was a car show.

None of this is to diminish the achievements of Top Gear, it is merely to suggest a little refurbishment and perhaps some new ideas. Too much television goes out of its way to toe the politically correct line, not to offend and to tick all the inclusiveness boxes. Top Gear has proven that actually the viewing public find all of this kind of thing dreary and just want a laugh. But sometimes even the best jokes need refreshment.

Stand Fast in Europe, Dave

There were alarming theories doing the rounds in the Sunday papers about the latest EU meeting at which, it is alleged, David Cameron will begin the process of backing down from his stance, a highly popular one, at the end of last year, which saw him become the first British prime minister to veto an EU treaty. Is he now succumbing to the usual pressure which sees our PMs bow to the collective EU will? Are the Euro fanatics the Lib Dems once again asserting pressure and managing to bounce the government into positions which the vast majority of MPs in the coalition, not to mention a majority of voters in this democracy do not support? How do the junior partners get such clout and who gave it to them?

David Cameron last year argued for specific protections for Britain, specifically for our financial services industry. He should not budge from that position. But further he should now insist on a higher price for our allowing through a new treaty and thus enabling Euro members to use EU institutions which they cannot do without our agreement. We want specific opt outs, in the same way we opted out of the Euro and used to be outside the remit of the social chapter until Labour surrendered in another forlorn attempt to put us 'at the centre of Europe.' If Cameron surrenders now the EU will merely pocket a concession from us before coming back for more in a few months time. That is how this process works. It is why we find ourselves in a union for which nobody voted.

It is said that David Cameron and William Hague feel that the Euro is doomed to failure and so do not see the point of kicking up a fuss about a treaty that will never come into force. But that is a ridiculous and short sighted approach whose only benefit will be in the short term, making for an easy life and more content coalition partners. Yet the Lib Dems and indeed the EU are on the wrong side of public opinion here. Surely it would suit us now to tell our lemming like partners that they are of course free to pursue whatever path they want to, but we want out and we want guarantees that their blind defence of the Euro and all that goes with it will not deleteriously affect Britain which had the foresight to warn of what would come and secure that golden opt out. 

We do not need to surrender to French intransigence and Sarkozy's temper tantrums. We need not fear the righteous anger of EU leaders if once again we say no and insist on sticking up for our national interests. The Euro is broken and the price of repairs is ruinously high. Britain should refuse to pay that price and insist upon a new settlement which better suits our semi-detached approach to Europe. Ultimately history will judge us as being right and this may be seen as the point at which Europe started to be redefined and reformed by the realists across the channel rather than the dreamers in Brussels. If Cameron holds fast it might even hand him the next election. He certainly need have no fear of about upsetting the Lib Dems. That is just a bonus.


The news that Stephen Hester is turning down his bonus is mixed news for the government. Yes it gets them off the hook but also makes them look weak. Can Dave now afford to look weak and pusillanimous in Europe too? He has had a good start to 2012 by and large but things could easily unravel.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

In Kenny We Still Trust: Liverpool 2 Man Utd 1

This time last week, in what was, by general consent, an awful performance, Liverpool lost at Bolton. Cue all kinds of comment pieces in the media about Liverpool in crisis, in the same way that Arsenal were in crisis at the beginning of the season, Chelsea have been at various intervals and even Man Utd after that loss to City.

In these pieces various people wondered if Liverpool fans would be so patient if he were not Kenny Dalglish. They wondered about the success or otherwise of the players he has signed since he came back a year ago and wondered whether he really could take the club back to where it was the last time he was in charge.

Well yes they would, actually. It's not just because it's Kenny, although that has something to do with it. Liverpool has never been a sacking club, it has always backed its managers. The Roy Hodgson era was atypical because he was an atypical appointment by a discredited and now thankfully departed regime.

Since that dreadful performance last week (and Liverpool have hardly been alone among the top teams in having bad days this season) have changed once again. Well, twice actually. First there was that brilliant win against Manchester City - the team to beat in all competitions in England this season and probably for many seasons to come. And today Kenny's men have raised themselves again and beaten the old enemy from the other part of Manchester in a pulsating clash after he made some second half substitutions which changed the game, gave Liverpool added impetus and eventually brought the winning goal. He even made the brave decision to bring off our usual talisman, Steven Gerrard.

Now nobody is claiming that Liverpool are the finished article, or even a realistic contender for this season's Premier League title, whatever I said with my usual blinkered optimism at the start of the season. But we should remember the great strides made since last year when the newly installed Dalglish took charge of his first game against United and got knocked out of the FA Cup and had to cope with the sulking and eventual departure of Fernando Torres. How's that going for you, Fernando?

Few would argue that Luis Suarez, notwithstanding his recent problems, has been a superb signing. Andy Carroll may not have shown the kind of form he used to show at Newcastle, but is playing in a different way for a new team and having to adjust and they to him. Anyone watching him today could not fault his effort.

And the same was true of the whole Liverpool team. Ultimately most fans will accept defeat or disappointment if they can see players working hard and trying. That was not true against Bolton last week but, since Kenny told them to buck their ideas up, we have seen two superb performances against the best two teams in the country both of whom have been defeated. That is real progress, with silverware now a very real prospect. It was good management.

There is a long way to go for Kenny to repeat the triumphs of the 80s. But anyone who sees him celebrate a goal and hears his passion for the club can see why fans adore the man. As I wrote last year when the chosen one returned, in Kenny we trust.

It's Not Forrest's, It's Mine

What is Forrest, the leader of the Labour Party, talking about when he waxes lyrical, well for him, on the subject of predatory capitalism? An interview with Total Politics this week reveals the answer: Forrest is really very very angry about Chocolate Oranges.

Did his brother nick his Terry's which is why he got his revenge by stealing his party from under his nose? No. It seems that before the last election David Cameron said that it was unacceptable that the likes of WH Smith put these enticing treats near to the check-outs to tempt us. A shop, trying to get us to buy things? Scandalous.

Now most sentient adults, I would suggest, are perfectly capable of walking past a stack of chocolate, however delicious and amusingly advertised by Dawn French, without government intervention to protect us from ourselves. Why these tasty treats should be more enticing because they are near the tills is a mystery.

But Forrest, and indeed Dave before he became PM, seemed to think that this was a genuine matter for regulation, or at least governmental concern. Forrest actually thinks that this is his business and that government should be interfering in the way that shops display their goods. The nanny state was literally going to tell us we were all too naughty to have sweets (or actually too fat).

Perhaps this was what Forrest had in mind when last week he told us that there were plenty of jobs that needed doing in the public sector. High streets will have inspectors in his brave new world who will ensure that shops do not entice us with gaudy displays of goods that are bad for us. We must all stand shame faced at the checkouts and have our baskets examined to ensure we are eating our five a day. Inspiring isn't it?

Friday, 27 January 2012

Bankers Salaries: Market Failure?

By and large, as I wrote earlier this week, I think that it isn't any of the government's business what private companies do about their remuneration arrangements so long as they comply with basic employment and contract law. Yes in an ideal world shareholders would take a firmer line with executives and demand more responsibility from them, but this is extraordinarily hard to achieve.

The case of Stephen Hester is different however in that RBS is largely owned by the taxpayer. It is of course true that we want our money back and need a decent management in place to get the bank on the right course. But I doubt really whether what Hester is being asked to do is so very complicated. Banks are not like Tescos, they are not operating in a world of cut throat competition more's the pity. It was only the spectacular incompetence and monumental folly of the Fred Goodwin regime that created the mess that Hester is now being asked to clear up. He does not need to be a thrusting entrepreneur of Terry Leahy or Phillip Green proportions to achieve this. He just needs to be sensible and conservative and manage the bank competently. Quite why this needs such a high salary is a mystery.

Ah yes, we are told, but the market for the likes of Hester is very competitive and so we have to pay the going rate. But is it? This is very difficult to test which is why execs keep getting away with their mega salaries.

But they do rather undo this argument with the next one. They tell us, after arguing that Hester is only getting the going rate, that at the same time he is forgoing part of it. Hence this bonus is only 60% of what he is entitled to and his salary is fairly middling by industry standards.

It follows logically then that other banks around the world should be looking enviously at Stephen Hester, looking at his rather cheap salary requirements and should be offering to pay him more if he will go and work for them. Are they? Is his phone ringing off the hook? If he had been denied this bonus would he really head off to greener pastures or are they a figment of his imagination?

One of these days it would be nice if someone had the guts to call their bluff and find out. That's how markets are supposed to work isn't it? Executive salaries are a classic example of market failure because some are ensuring that the bidding never really gets started.

The Disability Industry

Three cheers for Rod Liddle, everyone's favourite polemical leftie. Today, in The Sun, he is having a go at the pretend disabled. Hurrah to that. If there's one thing this country does well it is inventing afflictions and illnesses and then complaining about them until someone in government compensates you for your terrible suffering. Rod mentions the made up illness ME, essentially a decade long bout of tiredness and ennui which mysteriously only seems to affect middle class people who can spell fibromyalgia. There is no actual evidence for the existence of this condition, only the opinions of doctors who are probably the sort who dispense antibiotics to those suffering from colds for a quiet life, or tell men that they are suffering from sex addiction to excuse their sexual incontinence. 

According to some figures, under definitions established in the last decade or so, Britain has 11 million people now who qualify as disabled. 11 million? How do we ever get any work done? Presumably a large number of these apply to be so defined so as to claim benefits or to have those handy stickers in their cars enabling them to park wherever the hell they like. I could probably apply for this myself since I have a malfunctioning left leg and walk with a bit of a limp. I have declined to do so however since if I did I would feel like a bit of a fraud. This probably makes me a bit of a mug in modern Britain.

Inevitably of course Rod's article has attracted the usual opprobrium from the usual sources. People will claim to be offended soon and will then call for him to be sacked. Yet anyone looking objectively at this industry (for that is what it is) can see that it is an absurdity and another example of good intentions being hijacked.

In this last week we have had our unelected peers trying to frustrate the attempts of the government to rein in our welfare state. We had Tanni Grey Thompson, a celebrity disabled person (she actually is disabled) arguing that she should be paid extra because she is forced to drive an automatic car. This is the rights and entitlements society that our politicians have created and are even now defending. Any slight misfortune or impediment is something that should excuse our behaviour, be fixed for free by the NHS or be compensated from the bottomless cash pit that is the Welfare State. And then we wonder why Britain can no longer compete in world markets and is struggling to grow.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Diane Abbott Falls......Asleep

It seems that my little joke at Diane Abbott's expense above is not actually so very wide of the mark. Ms Abbott has flounced out of cross party talks about abortion counselling, claiming that it is all a bit of a stitch-up, or words to that effect.

Yet those who were at the talks are questioning how she knows. She was late for one meeting, didn't show up for another and at a third didn't fall into a boat but did fall asleep. She may be doing a bit of a Schettino here and getting her excuses, any excuses, in early. How much longer can she stay in  her job?

Agreeing With Nick

This seems to be a week for my making confessions. Yesterday it was my weakness for the elfin charms of Yvette Cooper. Today I have to admit that I find myself agreeing with Nick Clegg.

Now there was a brief time, back in 2010 during the election campaign, when agreeing with Nick was quite trendy. The party leaders did it during their first debate. It became a catchphrase, although if you had rushed it out on T shirts you would probably have lost your shirt since it was a phenomenon that was quite short lived.

Back then I too agreed with Nick, or at least one specific part of the Lib Dem manifesto. I thought then, and I still think now, that their plan to take the very low paid out of tax altogether is a sensible and potentially transformative one. I had in fact been arguing for such a scheme for some time. It ought to be the first instinct of any self respecting Tory.

Those on the left arguing that the government should abandon its plan to cut the deficit and spend to revivify the economy still don't get it. The boom we enjoyed during the noughties was one fuelled by Labour's profligacy. For a time it made our economy seem healthier than it really was. It disguised the poor state of our manufacturing, the hopeless state of our skills base and the truly terrifying imbalances in an economy divided between wealthy industries like financial services and industrial wastelands in the north. It was disguised by cheap credit fuelling a consumer boom and a public sector spoon fed money to create work for Labour's lost generation. Yet still the Labour leader argues that we should be borrowing money to create more public sector jobs to compensate for the uncompetitiveness his party helped encourage and would, given the chance, now exacerbate.

This tends to ignore the fact that we are even now borrowing in excess of £100 billion to pay for public services. Still what's a few billion more say Labour and the unions? Just add it to the pile. The likes of Polly Toynbee even admit that it is counter intuitive to argue that borrowing and spending more creates growth. That's because it doesn't in any real sense. Yes in the short term it creates a few jobs and maybe gives us a short term spurt. But in the long term that debt has to be repaid or at least serviced. That means that future spending will be affected and cuts made or taxes raised. 

There is no easy way out of our current predicament, other than hard work and penny pinching. Those arguing for Keynesian solutions, the modern equivalent of a magic wand, forget that Labour abandoned Keynesianism the moment Brown went on his borrowing and spending binge during the boom. Keynesian economics was supposed to be a way of saving money in the boom times in order to spend during the declines. It was a way of evening out the natural economic cycle, not a way of stopping it and creating growth out of nowhere as some seem to imagine.

Our current extremely modest plans to cut the deficit (not the debt which has now grown above a trillion) are keeping our bankers happy. We should be grateful that they are so amenable, or perhaps we should be grateful that we have a government that is prepared to take the very small steps it is taking towards fiscal sanity rather than take the apparently easy option favoured by Labour which would lead to further disaster and decline. Public sector jobs have to be paid for. 

Yes yesterday's news about GDP was bad but it's hardly surprising. We need to earn more on the world's markets and that is harder given that many are not buying. If Germany is struggling then we are unlikely to fare better. Labour's solution however is to try and stoke up another consumer boom and create public sector jobs to plaster over the cracks. There really are none so blind as those who will not see.

But cutting taxes (income taxes not VAT) is a good idea. It will help those earning the least who are suffering and struggling the most whilst rewarding those who want to work. It might even encourage more to do so and get out of the benefits system if the cuts can be forced through parliament. This economic crisis is hitting the so called squeezed middle the hardest and they should be helped where possible.

Where is the money to come from? It will have to be cut from somewhere. There is plenty of scope for it in our fat and unproductive public sector. Why not freeze their budgets for the next 3 years and tell them to find efficiency savings if they want to increase them or their own salaries? There is plenty of fat to trim. Well managed businesses constantly look for savings and increases in productivity. Public sector staff should be told that they must now do the same.

The times of plenty are over because they were always a fantasy and illusion created by money we didn't have. Things could be a lot worse and would be if Labour had their way. We should be thankful that Nick agrees with Dave and George and they with him.


Of course there is one very easy way of saving the billions needed for a tax cut. How about leaving the EU? What about it, Nick?...... Nick?

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

PMQs 25th January 2012 - The Dream Ticket Edition

I have a confession to make. I once had an erotic dream about Yvette Cooper. I'm not proud of it, although I do tell myself that we are not responsible for our own subconsciences. Nevertheless, Yvette Cooper? Yes, she is attractive, in an earnest, swotty, buttoned up kind of way. But then she will keep opening her mouth and talking Labour speak. Fortunately she didn't say much in my dream. She just deployed that little wrinkle at the top of her nose, the one she uses whenever she is saying something particularly earnest and sanctimonious and I was putty in her hands. I'm only human. And in my defence I also have a weakness for the younger, Tory version of Yvette, Chloe Smith.

Yvette, you see, is ultimately not so very different to Forrest. It's just that she's infuriating in a more amenable package, and that, as we all know, is often all you need in modern politics.

All in all then, if Forrest ever dreams of Yvette rather than the long suffering Justine, it is unlikely to be the sort of dream that I once had. It is much more likely to be of the nightmarish variety. You see Yvette has lately been getting some very good write-ups, and not just from those with schoolboyish crushes. Some, many in fact, are writing of her as leadership material. And, given that Forrest is having a bit of a nightmare in the top job, this has long since gone beyond the realms of fantasy and fantasising.

At the weekend, Labour fell 5 points behind the Tories in the latest poll. This, along with other polls that have lately been heading in the same direction, was not the sort of gap that can readily be explained by flukes and margins of error. Not that this has stopped Labour having a go. Interestingly they were dismissive of polls showing Labour and Forrest doing badly but more enthusiastic about those showing that Ken Livingstone is now ahead of Boris in London. Strange that.

But, you would think, even a delusional fruitcake, old style, promise them the earth Labour stalwart like Ken ought to be doing well under the present circumstances against a Tory, any Tory. Nationally Forrest and his party really ought to have a decent doublle figure lead. Yet they find themselves lagging behind the Tories and losing arguments about welfare and the economy - so much so that Forrest and Yvette's hubby have felt it necessary to execute a U turn or two whilst pretending to do otherwise. In so doing they have confused and infuriated the whole nation even more. Thus Yvette, in her fragrant but slightly irritating way, is seen as a threat. It all probably leaves Forrest with a nasty taste in his mouth. Perhaps that's why last week he told us he takes all of this sort of thing with a pinch of sugar rather than the traditional salt. At least it showed that it's not just at PMQs where he cocks up the jokes and aphorisms.

Anyway, to this week's PMQs. Dave could at least breathe a sigh of relief that the unemployment figures had been dealt with for another month. Unfortunately Forrest had the latest GDP figures to throw at him again. Bloody statisticians. This then ought to have been a golden opportunity for Forrest to hit Dave with both barrels. But then of course these golden opportunities have come and gone before and we have all been left like a Crystal Palace fan wondering about what might have been.

The first couple of questions came from backbenchers, including some famous Burns quotes that even we Sassenachs have heard of to throw at the SNP. They will today be setting out their stall for consulting the Scottish people about a referendum before going ahead and trying to do what they always intended to do in the first place. Dave called up his Scottish heritage and quoted Rabbie at SNP (south).

And speaking of timorous beasties, Forrest chose this moment to get to his feet. The Labour front bench were all wearing their Yvette-like serious faces, albeit without that cute nose crinkle. This is a sure sign of unfortunate statistics coming out and of them trying not to look smug. Sure enough, Forrest asked Dave about GDP. Cameron responded, as so often, by telling us how disappointed he was and then sought to blame debt, inflation and the Eurozone.

Forrest responded in time honoured fashion, telling the PM that people were fed up (apparently he does a quick straw poll every Wednesday morning) with these excuses. Now Dave might have responded that this was an odd statement given the state of the opinion polls. But, probably sensibly, he resisted the temptation. That would have actually left him open to one of Forrest's pre-scripted, weekly jibes about complacency. But Dave managed to mention the pre scripting anyway, alleging that Forrest never actually listens to the answer. The PM had said that there was more than one reason for our woes, which were only on a par or a little better than many of our neighbours.

Forrest tried a little righteous anger at this point. It is not his strong suit, although he doesn't have many anyway. It's that voice, that whining tone he has. It's hard to take seriously. Nevertheless, he was making Dave look a little uncomfortable as there were only so many excuses the PM could come up with. But instead he stopped. Dave was off the hook. What were the next three questions going to be about?Something more important than the state of the economy?

Only a short while later, after yet another question from Sir Peter Tapsell (why he is so favoured?) Forrest was back and asking about the NHS. Suddenly this didn't look like such a bad decision after all. Dave was decidedly lacklustre, although thankful for the breather. His line about a GP from Doncaster, Forrest's constituency, backing the reforms was weak to say the least. But he persisted with it, despite the silence this produced from behind him.

The Conservative benches look decidedly dispirited on this issue. The NHS reform is a sticky wicket for them and now the opposition to it is looking ever more organised and determined, albeit not so much from Her Majesty's Opposition.

And here was Forrest's weakness revealed for all to see. Dave was on the defensive and his defence was looking as porous as so many in this year's Premier League. Anyone would think that he was as unconvinced as the rest of the country about the NHS reforms, or that he doesn't really understand them, like everyone but the Health Secretary. His defence of them was pretty hopeless. He could have said that the NHS had to change and evolve or else it would collapse under its own contradictions. He probably wanted to say that nobody really knew if these reforms would work because the NHS is a hopeless and unwieldy monolith that will take longer to turn around than an oil tanker in the Straits of Hormuz. But he couldn't say that.

Did Forrest notice the PM's difficulties? Maybe he did. But he had neither the wit or the nous to capitalise on them. A decent Commons performer would have laid into Dave and ridiculed his weak defence of a major policy. But Forrest stuck to his script as usual. He was as flat footed as a 35 year old centre back with a dodgy achilles.

And this remains his and his party's problem. He just hasn't got what it takes. At a time when the government ought to be in trouble on so many issues, Labour is giving them a free ride. Dave barely has to try at these sessions because Forrest doesn't make him need to. This was actually one of the Labour leader's better outings but once again he failed to score what ought to have been a resounding win against a PM who was visibly struggling and has to keep reverting to the same tired excuses and arguments. This is a PM being allowed to get away with it and even taking a lead in the polls.

It says everything for Labour's predicament that they think that Yvette Cooper is the answer. She is no star performer herself, merely competent and earnest. She isn't quite as bad as a female version of Forrest. She is more like a female version of his brother. But for Labour at the moment perhaps that is the 21st century equivalent of a dream ticket.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Taxes and Benefits: A Tale of Modern Britain.

There is much comment in the American media today at the news that Mitt Romney is only paying around a 15% tax rate. Now I am not going to defend that rate, it does seem ridiculously low. And can you imagine if one of our own millionaires or one of those evil bankers were paying such a rate? It's unlikely they would be standing for prime minister. They would be driven from the country.

But I have for some time found it a strange concept that the rich should see the rate at which they pay tax increase the more they earn. Why? How is that logical?

It is entirely fair and reasonable that those who earn more should pay more in tax. But that would be accomplished even if we all paid the same percentage on our earnings - 25% of a million is a lot more than 25% of 20 thousand after all. It is called a flat tax and it has much to recommend it. Those who call it unfair should expain why.

Yet in this country, and most large developed countries around the world, the rate actually increases as earnings go up. The state is actually confiscating, in our case, half or more of someone's money based on some politician's notion of what is and is not fair. And then we wonder why people do their best to avoid or sometimes evade tax (no names, obviously).

Yet if this government were to have the courage of their convictions (that's the Tories obviously, Lib Dems prefer to try to avoid convictions -  not just the motoring type - as they are electorally inconvenient) then they would cut the top rate of tax. Some, like me, would probably like to introduce that flat tax for all but would be wary of the consequences. Yet it is perfectly fair, equitable and reasonable that everyone should pay the same rate of tax. It would, evidence suggests, create higher revenues, curtail avoidance and evasion, attract people to these shores and would make the administration of our tax system simpler and more understandable. Oh accountants wouldn't like it too. There's a winning argument if ever there was one.

Politicians and those who have somehow found themselves in parliament, like our idiot bishops, like to tell us that they want fairness. But fairness is a moveable feast. Ultimately what could be fairer than ensuring that the state takes as little of our earnings as possible and leaves us to spend our money as we see fit? What could be fairer than making hard work rather than indolence pay by taking the very low paid out of tax altogether? Even if the state spent our money well and didn't waste countless billions each year - as we know it does - it would still be spending our money on other people's priorities and notions of what is 'progressive,' whilst failing to notice that the measures they take have created a benefit dependent underclass who feel it their right not to have to work for their benefits and are prepared to waste more taxpayers money to defend that right in the courts.

If, for instance, you were to come off the dole now and go and work until the end of the tax year in a job on the minimum wage or not much higher, you would most likely have to pay no tax at all until the beginning of April so as to use up your tax allowance. That is a real incentive.

Now imagine if you could do that all year round? That, rather than the attempts by members of the House of Lords yesterday to impose their peculiar version of what is fair and caring, would be a really 'progressive' step in every sense of that ill used word. Earning your own money, working for it, doing a few extra hours to pay for the kids birthday or Christmas presents is a healthy and socially responsible way for people to behave. It's only those in the ermine towers who seemingly cannot see it.

Guido today reports that Tory MPs are trying to introduce a measure that would itemise exactly how our taxes are spent. You can be sure that Labour will oppose such a measure tooth and nail as it would expose just how spectacularly expensive our welfare state has become and how much we all pay for it every week or month via our salaries.

What was originally supposed to be a safety net has become a vast redistribution system producing perverse outcomes. It has created millions who now demand money for nothing and recompense for every twinge or minor ailment. Last week we had Tanni Grey-Thompson, someone elevated to the House of Lords because she is very quick in a wheelchair, actually arguing that she should get extra money from the rest of us because she needs an automatic car. Labour have even got themselves into the ludicrous position that they argue that there should be universal benefits paid to all, regardless of whether they need them, so that those who do need them aren't made to feel like scroungers.

Is this what the benefits system was set up for? Or is it another example of legislative creep, of politicians promising baubles paid for with other people's money? The worst part about it is that they have slowly made Britain uncompetitive to pay for their own electoral bribes. And so the tax rate rises.

Ultimately, whatever politicians say, the rich by being rich have not actually done anything wrong. The vast majority have become wealthy by doing what politicians should be encouraging, not penalising. Even those city fat cats (with the possible exception of those working for state owned banks) are enriching themselves with shareholders money, not ours. Yet it offends politicians and so something must apparently be done. Perhaps they should take a look at their own lavish pension schemes, their own compensation schemes for MPs who lose at elections before they talk about reward for failure. Perhaps they should look at the vast and expensive array of quangos they use as rewards and bribes for those who used to be politicians until kicked out.

Our benefits system, rather than the safety net that was intended, has become one gigantic multi billion pound reward for failure and giving up - or not bothering in the first place. In some cases it genuinely addresses real need. In others it just creates need and dependency and entrenches it. Worse it deprives those who really need help of the kind of funding that would make their lives easier by handing it to those who want an easy life at someone else's expense. Those who now try to water down much needed measures are not being caring. They are trapping millions of people in the system and a life of hopeless fecklessness. They are also 'progressively' strangling the life out of the British economy.


Figures out today show that Britain's national debt, a large part of which was created by Gordon Brown as part of his spending and redistribution binge, has now hit £1 trillion. And that's just the bit that is not hidden off the books. This is a figure that we must all live with now. It will never be seriously reduced except by inflation eating away at it. It is the price of political failure and cowardice handed down to future generations.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Devo Max: The Worst Option For The UK

As preparations and arrangements are made for the meeting between David Cameron and Alex Salmond about the referendum on the future of Scotland, are we in danger of falling into the trap of accepting that so called Devo Max is the compromise we must all accept to hold the Union together and appease the Scots? If so we could be creating a future crisis which could blow apart that Union in a rancorous way that will make current arguments look like a tea party.

It is one thing for the Scots to demand to bring to an end the Union created 300 years ago. That is their right, even if it seems a juvenile and illogical step to anyone looking at it objectively, especially when, as is already happening, we start looking at the details and try to unpick those 300 years of shared history and fiscal entanglements. There is a reason after all why Salmond feels the need to keep talking about Scottish gripes and plans to hold any and all events connected with independence on days of historical or cultural significance. If I were Scottish I would be furious that he feels he can get away with these serial insults to my intelligence.

The so called compromise of Devo Max however is not a compromise at all. It is an attempt by the SNP to create a semi-detached Scotland which could pick and choose which parts of the Union it wants to remain a part of, a have your cake and eat it approach. Aha, some will say, but that is exactly what Euro sceptics want to do with with the EU. The difference of course is that Britain signed up to a common market and got railroaded into a political union when all we wanted was free trade. It is also an arrangement that has only been in place for 40 years, not 300. And anyway, Scotland has a right to independence and self determination. What the SNP is trying to do, from a position of weakness given that polls indicate the Scottish people are against full independence, is negotiate itself a highly advantageous and selective position vis a vis the UK. Note it already has this. Now they want more.

Let's say that Devo Max were granted. This would mean, presumably, that Scotland would be self governing and self financing except in matters of defence and foreign policy. But this creates all kinds of problems, from what proportion of the national debt they have, how they issue new debt, to whether or not they could refuse to pay for aspects of our defence policy of which they disapprove. They would go from a situation where they just get to spend the money without having to raise it, to one where they refuse to pay for items over which they have no control. Once again England would be left with the bill, a situation quickly heightened because soon Wales and Northern Ireland would demand similar treatment.

And then there is the vexed question of the West Lothian question. In a nutshell, this wonders why it is that Scottish MPs get to vote on English matters when English MPs cannot do the same because these powers are reserved to a Scottish Parliament. Under the last government we even had a prime minister who could do that.

And this is the point. We would still be opening up a constitutional can of worms.

Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that this patently unfair situation were remedied as part of the Devo Max negotiations. Let's assume that Scottish MPs were thus barred from voting on English matters. Would this then preclude us having a Scottish PM ever again? How would they feel about that? Would that still feel like a Union?

Further, what would happen if, after a general election, one party (probably Labour) had a majority in the whole of the UK but another party (probably the Conservatives) had a majority in the rest of the UK? Who would be prime minister? Would we have to have two? We would effectively be turning ourselves into a federation. It could easily see Britain become ungovernable and thus it would break up anyway, and not in a pretty way.

Devo Max, far from being the compromise, is in fact a step too far. The signs are that David Cameron is trying to prevent the SNP from having it as a fallback option. It is not a fallback option, it is a fallout option. If the Scots want Devo Max then this is no longer a matter for them to decide alone. They would need the consent of the rest of the UK and we would likely tell them to get lost. Scotland is a proud and separate nation that joined us in a union. They have every right to end that relationship if they so choose. They do not however have the right to create a ultra generous settlement for themselves based on the threat of that independence. We might conclude that it would be better to go their own way. Whatever, David Cameron must point out forcefully that the rest of the country demands to be consulted.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Time Defined

Time, as we all know (or ought to know) is relative. This, for those of you who find all of that Einsteinian relativity stuff confusing, is fundamentally what the great man was talking about. Time, he said, is not a constant. It is relative. 

Now for most of us, here on Planet Earth - unless you happen to be putting a satellite in space or sending a probe to Mars or the other planets -  this is unnoticeable. This is because we are all on the same ball of rock hurtling through space. It is true that those who fly anywhere experience time ever so slightly differently, but not so that you would notice, unless you happen to have an atomic clock about your person instead of a wrist watch.

Yet this week scientists have been arguing and failing to come to agreement about the issue of time. For centuries time has been calculated, sensibly enough, according to how fast the Earth spins on its axis. This, annoyingly, varies and is not entirely reliable. For instance the Japanese earthquake last year had a measurable effect on the spin of the planet and shortened the day a little. Our not quite spherical planet, the solar system and the wider universe is not quite as perfect a clockwork machine as is sometimes imagined, although again you only notice if you happen to have an atomic clock or a god-like vantage point.

So now it is being seriously suggested that time should not be defined by the spinning of the planet we call home, but by atomic clocks which are so much more reliable. The practice of adding a leap second every few years to compensate for our planet's deficient time keeping should be abandoned.

But how is that sensible? After all, the reason our days are 24 hours long and our years 365 days was not plucked out of thin air - no, actually when you think about it, it was. Scratch that.

But that is the point. Our planet defines us. Our days and seasons are defined by it. Our months and tides are defined by that big ball of rock in the sky which acts as a giant stabiliser. Clocks only measure time, they should not define it. It is ridiculous to argue that a day should no longer be the amount of time our planet takes to complete a spin. That is what a day is. Who are we to argue with a whole planet? If it wants to change it's mind then so be it. It is 4.5 billion years old after all, is constantly being bombarded with tons of space debris, shaken by volcanoes and earthquakes and being pulled hither and thither by gravity. It's entitled to be a little contrary. The fact that a jumped up clock is telling us that it is varying a little from time to time ought to be a matter of curiosity and maybe a question on a quiz show, not an argument for a new definition.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Fairer Capitalism?

Much is being made of the meme spreading through politics, the media and various soon to be evicted campsites about the need for capitalism to be moral, fair, responsible, call it what you will. Ah yes, say the politicians, we hear what you say, something must be done. And of course it is impossible for them to say anything else. If they were to argue that capitalism is fine as it is then they would be lynched.

But what exactly do they want to do? What aspects of capitalism do they most object to and what do they plan to do about it? No doubt Forrest would like to create dozens of regulators to pore over the actions of corporate Britain and create fairness by committee, although one man's fairness is another's impertinent intrusion.

This is not to say that the state shouldn't regulate, legislate and adjudicate the market. It does that already, albeit not always well, which is something we should bear in mind as and when Labour start coming up with solutions and policies rather than soundbites. The solution to excessive executive pay ought to be to empower shareholders, the owners of these companies, to rein them in or insist that they earn their remuneration and reject the argument that these executives are in such demand around the world that they can effectively dictate their terms. As so often however, it is simply not as simple as that most of the time.

But regulation can and does work, albeit often slowly. The recent announcement that airlines are going to have to curtail the sharp practice of charging us for paying for our flights with an additional charge is a fine example of the system working. The airlines found a lucrative loophole which has now been closed. What they will now do is what they are doing already, use various other ruses to part us from our money, like asking us to select a seat or check in when we don't really need to. Most canny and reasonably intelligent consumers see through such measures. Publicity is the best way of ending these practices. I for one will never fly with Ryanair because I object to being shamelessly fleeced by an operation which is effectively a flying cowboy operation. Ultimately withdrawing our custom is the best way of bringing cynical companies into line. If a company were to start an advertising campaign promising that the price on their website is the price you pay with any extras clearly explained then perhaps others would be forced to follow suit.

And the same is true of the utilities, like our rapacious energy providers. They use a confusing array of tariffs to bewilder all but the most mathematically gifted and patient of consumers. Arrayed against them however are all of those price comparison websites that have shot up and are much more helpful than the useless state regulator, which ought to be setting out a system of uniform tariffs that energy companies must use so that people can compare prices in a clear and readily understandable way. Obfuscation is the enemy of competition.

Companies are out to maximise profits, pay as little tax as necessary and grab as much of the market as they can. Consumers want to buy those products or services if they are available at the right prices and provide the quality required. So far so easy. That is how capitalism works. It is why it remains the most successful way for humans to get what we want at a price we can afford, which drives growth, jobs and innovation.
What politicians don't want to admit is that capitalism is just a reflection of human nature. That is why it works and why it can sometimes go so terribly wrong. We are all ultimately selfish beings who are out for ourselves and our nearest and dearest. Companies do it and so do consumers. In a perfectly balanced world they even each other out. All that politicians and regulators can reasonably hope to do is ensure that the scales are working properly.

Where politicians like Forrest become confused is when they start imagining that those in the public sector somehow have purer motives than the rest of us. Apparently they haven't noticed the way that public sector unions try to hold the country to ransom to improve their own terms and conditions at the expense of the rest of us, from tube and train drivers to doctors as we have seen this week. The reason they get away with this is because they are operating in a marketplace that lacks competition, rather like the energy companies that Forrest criticises. Where the law of supply and demand ceases to apply someone will seek to profit from it. In the private sector these are called cartels and they are outlawed. In the public sector the unions ruthlessly exploit them and demand that they never be diluted. They even pay for politicians to help ensure this cosy position remains unchallenged.

And those same politicians are not above using their positions and status to enrich themselves on the public purse. The MPs expenses scandal may not have been the sort of corruption we see in other countries but it was part of the same affliction. It is hard to take seriously the complaints of our political class who go into this cosy, cossetted world from an early age, get their safe constituencies sewn up by glad handing the right people and then spend the rest of their lives passing judgement on those who do similar things. Yes the way corporate salaries are decided and failure rewarded is scandalous and should be addressed, but then so should the way our politicians self select and protect one another. How are they any different?

The world got into a mess in 2008 because the market for debt got out of control and a bubble was created. For this, greedy bankers should take their share of the blame. But so must the rest of us. We all got carried away. The world believed the hype. We believed that the money was real and that we could go on spending what we were not earning. Politicians were as much to blame as any of us because they spent the tax proceeds on bribes for us to keep electing them and created an ever more unaffordable entitlements culture with it. It was not capitalism that failed, it was a textbook example of human nature let rip.Why is it okay for prices of housing to keep rising so that we can keep borrowing? This was not victimless. Millions of people now unable to afford their own homes were the victims of this boom and of the Nimbies objecting to the millions of houses being built that we so desperately need.

Life and marketplaces are not fair. They are never going to be. Some people, born with the ability to run and kick a football but not overly blessed with charm, will nevertheless earn fortunes. The same is true of those who can write and persuade millions to buy their books. Others, blessed with less saleable abilities, which may nevertheless advance humanity and teach us new and fascinating things about the universe, will have to satisfy themselves with a modest salary and a sense of achievement. That's life.

Capitalism, like democracy, is very far from perfect. But it is the least worst system we have yet devised, principally because we didn't devise it at all, we just let it happen and then tinkered at the edges when things went wrong. And things will always go wrong. Capitalism is about spotting gaps in the market and exploiting them. Sometimes it invents things like smart phones, iPads, ABS braking in cars - all things created by people to earn them money and rapidly copied by competitors to save losing market share and thus bring innovations to the masses.

On other less laudable occasions companies find ways of making a fast buck by pulling the wool over our eyes. Fortunately we live in  a connected world, a world of lightning fast communication in which journalists, bloggers and angry consumers can inform the world of these ruses and close them down. Ultimately good companies that want to keep their earnings year after year do not want to ruin their images by performing shoddy services or making inferior products.

Politicians themselves are part of a market place and that is why they are now competing to own and control this prime piece of political real estate. The difference between them and the companies they are now threatening to rein in is that their lies and spin are unregulated, except by the likes of Paxman, Humphries and Snow. Failure in politics is not only tolerated it is practically encouraged. Remember that the next time they make their speeches about business and capitalist ethics. The biggest threat to the prosperity of all of us is the Euro and the EU. That was a creation of politicians who are not only tolerating failure, they are using our money to prop it up.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

This Is Public Service Broadcasting

Like many people, I am often frustrated and infuriated by the BBC. This is particularly the case amongst those of us who have worked for it and can see what a fantastically wasteful and bureaucratic monolith it can be, even while we love working there and admire what, at its best, it stands for.

Yet credit where credit is due for Stargazing Live, three programmes this week which drew big and appreciative audiences, educated and informed about a subject that fascinates and yet confuses millions and even managed to find a planet which will now bear the name of the viewers who spotted it.

This, rather than the vapid trash of Saturday nights, is what the BBC ought to be doing. I'm not saying that they shouldn't be making mass entertainment programmes, I'm not arguing for elitism. The BBC should not be turned into the broadcasting equivalent of the Royal Opera House. But why do they have to compete with ITV for the lowest common denominator audience? The BBC at its best makes challenging, daring programmes. The BBC at its best makes ITV raise its game.

And this was the BBC at its best. It used all of the resources at its disposal to make genuinely interesting and educational television. It may even have inspired future scientists, maybe another Brian Cox. 

A couple of years ago I applied to the BBC for a production job. I didn't get it. But as part of the application we were asked to come up with ideas for programming. My idea was a kind of beginners guide to astronomy. Lo and behold the very next year this show cropped up. It has now had two highly successul outings. Now this may be entirely a coincidence. And even if it wasn't, there is no copyright in ideas. And anyway, I enjoyed the show. So you're welcome, BBC. And, just so you know, I have plenty more ideas where that came from.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Boris Island Has Lift Off

It's welcome news that the government is now seriously looking at the idea of a new aiport for London in the Thames estuary, or Boris Island as the press have termed it. I prefer Johnson's Jetway, but then I have a weakness for alliteration.

This blog has long been a supporter of the idea. I wrote about it here back in the winter of 2010 when Heathrow had managed to cause chaos after a bit of snow thanks to underinvestment and treating a prime national asset as a shopping mall and cash cow.

But that is not the only reason why we should be looking at a new airport. Heathrow is full and a national embarrassment. It is also, thanks to an accident of aviation history, in entirely the wrong place, in a built up area where it is difficult to expand or to improve the surrounding infrastructure. It has an enviable safety record for which we should all be thankful. But being where it is any accident would be catastrophic as the near miss of that BA flight a couple of years ago demonstrated.

Successive governments have looked at the issue. Some have even seriously considered a new airport to the east of London. None have ever had the courage to take the brave but ultimately logical decision to forge a new path and create the capacity that London so desperately needs, especially as we now need to be connecting to up and coming cities around the world. This, rather than pointless high speed railway lines, is what this government should be investing our time and treasure in.

I suspect that there is a real public interest in and appetite for a scheme like this if the interest in my own blog posts is anything to go by. Cynics are suggesting that all of this is just an attempt by the government to bolster Boris in the run up to the mayoral election. Even if that is the case, surely the fact that this is seen as a positive means that a new airport scheme would be popular and a sensible project for government backing. Britain needs to be bold and imaginative if we are to grow and prosper in the 21st century. 

PMQs 18th January 2012 - The U Turns, Deja Vu and Dinosaurs Edition

There was a time during these sessions last year, albeit a long time ago now, when Forrest found a sort of resonance and a degree of what looked suspiciously like success for pinning the accusation of chaotic policy making and hasty U turns on Dave and his government. NHS reform and forest privatisation were the most noteworthy issues that embarrassed Dave. HS2 might be another, although since there is all party consensus on the need for this 21st century folly, Labour may find it difficult to cause red faces there.

Over the last few days though, Labour has been looking fairly chaotic itself and not just when rushing to sack someone who posted a Downfall parody of Alex Salmond. So what? Isn't Forrest supposed to be a geek? Isn't he supposed to get this sort of thing?

No, Labour has been trying a bit of policy. No, really. Or at least they have attempted to perform a U turn or two on what was kind of sort of their policy on the cuts, whilst of course claiming to be doing anything but. Meanwhile the mutterings about Forrest's leadership, not to mention his, ahem, unconventional looks, have been getting louder, although the calls for the critics to shut up were just as loud. But then what do you expect from John Prescott?

But it is the U turns that have been more telling. Labour doesn't really have many actual policies. They have a lot of slogans and positions but nothing which might actually achieve the land of milk and honey and fairness for all that they like to promise. Now it seems they are actually performing U turns even on their slogans. Ed Balls gave one of his typically slippery speeches at the weekend. The cuts that were too far and too fast remain so he insisted but they wouldn't actually reverse them.The government has been telling us that there is no alternative to the cuts. Did Ed Balls and his boss now agree? That would be quite a U turn, even one based purely on slogans and sanctimony.

All in all then this promised to be a session that could be difficult for Forrest. Whatever he chose to throw at Dave, the PM would have plenty to throw back, including some examples of friendly fire from Forrest's own party.

Fortunately Forrest can rely on a nice easy subject for him and an awkward one for Dave at least once a month for the foreseeable future. The unemployment figures came out. Surely even Forrest couldn't cock this one up?

The trouble with this of course is that it does invite the two of them to just parrot the lines of the month before and the month before that and the....well, you get the idea. It would save a lot of time if Forrest were to simply do what he does in his speeches and  interviews and just say the same thing over and over again. Dave could simply stand up and say 'I refer the honourable gentleman to the silver lining I found last month and the contrast with the last government I found the month before.'

Because that was what we got. Forrest asked his question, Dave said it was all very disappointing, found cause for optimism, read out a list of measures the government was taking. Forrest accused him of complacency in that voice he uses to suggest he is outraged and appalled and even accused him, apropo of who knew what, of boasting. This was the closest he got to wrongfooting Dave because he had been very careful to sound measured, concerned and borderline contrite. He looked quite hurt.

It all ended with a slight flourish when Dave rounded off by referring to Forrest's U turns and accused him, not unreasonably, of not being terribly good even at those, but it did all feel rather like going through the motions. Even Ed Balls, possibly because he felt it inappropriate to be enjoying bad unemployment figures, was quiet and a little less annoying than usual. He still managed to look smug though. But when Forrest is low key, usually because of his own travails but occasionally because of world events, Dave fails to raise his game. So we had another damp squib.

Ultimately the only bit of excitement was at the end when Dennis Skinner stood up and went through his Tory and Murdoch hating routine, asking Dave when he would be appearing before the Leveson Inquiry. Dave said he would be happy to appear but had not yet been invited. But he thanked the beast of Bolsover for sparing him and his children the journey to Kensington to see the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum.

Forrest had experimented earlier with a line comparing this government to the 1980s. Perhaps he has been to see The Iron Lady this week. Or perhaps he has been reminded of this by his own run-ins with Labour's other dinosaurs in the Trade Union movement. But he would do well to remember that that decade, though a running sore for the likes of Skinner and the unions, was not a happy one for Labour. They were similarly deluded about the world then and had a leader who tried to look tough and stand up to the lefties. This week Forrest has even used the word tough when responding to his critics. His problem remains that, when he used it and tried to look forthright and determined, one couldn't help but laugh.


Apparently some, like the increasingly ridiculous Rachel Reeves and Luciana Berger have been trying to kick up a stink about Dave being rude about Dennis Skinner and calling him a dinosaur. This is ageist apparently.  Really? What particular constituency do you imagine that kind of argument is going to play to? Sometimes there is no helping these metropolitan socialists purporting to represent the working class. Apparently they haven't noticed that most of the country doesn't actually subscribe to their Guardian view of the world.

And anyway, lest we forget, Dennis Skinner is not above a bit of parliamentary verbal jousting himself. It isn't that long since the nasty old curmudgeon called the PM a plonker. The finding offence police really need to get a life, or get out more, preferably in their constituencies. 

Rihanna Rocks!

Rihanna is now modelling for Armani. That's all. The pictures are worth more than words.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A Gala Or A Boat? What To Get For The Man Or Woman Who Has Everything.

They say that the Fat Leader, Kim Jong-Un, is starting to enjoy his new role and recently attended a gala in his honour. You know the sort: full of impressive militaristic displays, grinning automatons and pulchritudinous girls. Most of us would have the decency to be embarrassed by being lauded and celebrated in this way and to be surrounded by an audience that 'seethed with an atmosphere of intense loyalty.' But I suppose one could become used to this kind of thing and then maybe to become reliant on it, especially if you have no discernible talent and would, all things being equal, be one of the kids chosen last for team sports.  

But perhaps you have to be raised and trained for life to endure this kind of thing. It's not unlike our own royal family. Most of us would be embarrassed at a time of austerity by headlines today that someTories would like to present the Queen with a lovely new boat to thank her for spending 60 years cutting ribbons and making monotonous speeches.Her Maj however is made of much sterner stuff than the rest of us however. She already has a private train like her North Korean counterpart and a nice new boat would be so much more practical than the double rainbows the fat leader can apparently call into existence.

Monday, 16 January 2012

How Did Sherlock Survive? The Ratings Saved Him

2012 has barely got under way and we've already had our first great television moment in the form of Sherlock, brought to us by Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, via the ever more impressive Benedict Cumberbatch - surely he has to go to Hollywood with a name like that?

Yet am I alone in wishing that Moffatt would write more or even all of these, even if it meant that he went back to only writing one episode a year of Dr Who? He is so much better at these, at adult action drama laced with humour of the sort we used to love in his comedy Coupling.

The Moffatt version of Dr Who, whilst by no means a failure, has never hit the heights of the Russell T Davies series. Indeed Moffatt has never hit the heights of his own scripts during that period when he came up with the superb Blink and The Empty Child. His style is still there for all to see, but sometimes it has drowned out the humour and vitality that made the earlier Who series so joyful and entertaining.Too often his tendency for elaborate and intricate plotting detracts from what is supposed to be a family show. It is much better suited to Sherlock.

And the fact is that, though this series has been excellent and entertaining, last night's show, written by the less sure footed Stephen Thompson, lacked the edge of the others, particularly the first, penned by Moffatt himself. I could see the twists coming from a mile off and the denouement would have been obvious to the viewers of the Sarah Jane Adventures, let alone Dr Who. It was a cop out of an ending. How did he manage to survive? We were not told. Would it be too cynical of me to suggest that Messrs Moffatt, Gatiss and Thompson also have no idea at this stage, but will be eagerly watching the blogs and messageboards for the theories of fans before deciding who is right?

Salmond Among Equals

I see that David Cameron has agreed to see Alex Salmond to discuss the referendum, although pointing out that really the First Minister should deal with the Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore. You would think that Salmond would prefer to speak to a Lib Dem given how often he speaks of his discontent at Tory rule from London but of course Salmond is playing a different game and wishes to be seen as the equal of a prime minister and not a mere cabinet minister.

Salmond has form in this respect. He once refused to talk at the same time in a Newsnight discussion because his interlocutor was not a fellow party leader only to be embarrassed when Jeremy Paxman pointed out the reasons for him having to conduct two separate interviews.

But you can't help wonder what the great tartan ego's prime motivation for Scottish independence is though when push comes to shove. Does he really think it is best for the nation of which he is so proud? Has he really thought through the many and various implications that are already coming to light? Or is he, like Tony Blair, more concerned with legacy issues, his place in history and securing himself a place at the international top table as of right next to David Cameron taken there by a better standard of limousine?

Friday, 13 January 2012

Please Sir, Teach Us Properly

The reaction of the teachers' unions to Michael Gove's announcement of new measures to speed up the sacking of bad teachers is predictable but depressing. 'It's a bully's charter,' says the NUT, while the NASUWT argues that the government is trying to destroy the teaching profession.

Both arguments are patently absurd. Indeed one would hope that if one of their students came up with such an argument in class they would be given a D, but you can't be sure.

All that Gove is doing is bringing teaching on the same level as other professions, which would not tolerate such low standards. It isn't as if he is undermining normal employment legislation. Quite the contrary. He just doesn't see why teachers should have their current exemption. And surely raising standards by sorting out the wheat from the chaff would enhance the profession rather than destroy it.

We must all have known bad or lazy teachers during our school careers. I went to what was regarded as one of the better comprehensive schools, and yet we had teachers who could not control their classes, who didn't turn up for registration periods leaving a trusted pupil to fill in a legal form, and another who taught woefully outdated scientific theories.  There must be thousands of such tales. Yet, in the last ten years, only 18 teachers have been sacked for incompetence. Do the unions really think that accurately reflects the standard of teaching and teachers in this country? The law of averages would suggest that that is an absurdity.

Surely teachers, if they have the best interests of their students at heart, should welcome any attempt to raise the standards of their profession? Surely they should resent those getting paid the same as them and yet doing a worse job? That would be the case in most walks of life. Why do teachers think they should be different?

War Horse!

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Don't Buy The Salmond Hype

Are Westminster politicians and the media in danger of hyping up the abilities of Alex Salmond even more than his own party? Take a look at various opinion pieces and commentary this week and you would think that Salmond is a modern day Gladstone and not the unprincipled chancer that he really is.

This week the Westminster parties have decided at last to take Salmond on. His reaction has been entirely predictable, talking about Tories and Margaret Thatcher whenever possible and trying to turn this into a London versus Edinburgh spat. Yet what looks like shameless opportunism, spin and deceit is lauded as tactical brilliance. I mean you have to admire his cheek but that is all it is. How is it any different to what the likes of Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell used to get up to? Salmond is just Tony Blair wearing a cheeky grin, wrapped in the Saltire and without the faux estuary accent. For now the Scottish people are enjoying the spectacle and are buying the spin. But why is the media?

Today Salmond is trying to use his Edinburgh majority to give himself backing for his attempts to fix a referendum according to his rules. But, as has been patiently explained, that is outside that institution's powers. It is, to use the legal term, ultra vires. Scots may not like this but that is the law under our present constitutional arrangements. What they are trying to do is extend their powers in a kind of coup d'etat by media announcement. Tonight the Scottish Parliament is going to vote symbolically to leave the UK. What's the point? It's like those 1980s loony left councils that used to declare themselves nuclear free. Indeed there's a lot of that kind of politics about Salmond. He's a kind of 21st century Derek Hatton.

Ultimately, for all of his spin and bluster and undoubted style, Salmond knows that he faces an uphill task which is why he is putting off holding his referendum until 2014. Yet, just like those other spin meisters, he is ultimately treating the public like fools. Is he proposing waiting two and a half years to hold the vote so as to fully consult with the Scottish people as he claims, or is he doing so in the hope that something turns up? And does he really think that the form of such a major constitutional decision should be something decided entirely by him without the input of the other parties? Does he believe in democracy or not?

Salmond is of course adept at avoiding awkward questions as he showed in last year's elections when he didn't mention his preferred date for this referendum in his manifesto and eventually spilled the beans only 4 days before the vote. Yet this is the central plank of his party's policy. It is their raison d'etre.

But David Cameron has been absolutely right, whatever the commentators are now saying, to make Salmond come clean. Salmond has been forced to be open about when he wants his referendum and concoct some poor excuses for his reasons for waiting so long. He trusts himself to win the argument presumably, yet why has he been trying to postpone it? If he really wants independence and thinks it right that Scotland go its own way, why doesn't he want it as soon as possible? If he holds the referendum in 2014 and manages to win the vote, the tortuous nature of the negotiations will mean that the day will be postponed to near the end of this decade, especially if the deal they agree has to be put to another vote as is possible.

Still, let him have his vote in 2014, but let's have a straight yes/no vote for or against independence since that is what his party stands for and still insists it wants. Ultimately he may come to regret that lengthy lead time. Once the date of that vote is set, Salmond will be saddling himself with a period of debate even longer than an American presidential election. Can independence and all that it means stand that kind of scrutiny? Salmond will need more than cheek, charm and spin to survive that. He'll need a convincing argument that the upheaval and expense is worth it and won't leave little Scotland isolated in a globalised world.

Does Immigration Cause Unemployment?

There has been a bit of debate in the media this week about immigration. Actually there has been a trade of statistics and studies between newspapers, each from their different political perspectives with both claiming to have definitive proof that immigration does or does not create unemployment amongst our young people.

It is of course nonsense to claim that for every one in there must be one out of work. Economies are nothing like as simple or easy to read as that. But there must be some kind of correlation, after all employers keep telling us that immigrants are often more hard working, better qualified and with more skills than the indigenous workforce. Thus they are denying people from these shores jobs, however justified the choice might be.

No, say the lefties. There is no correlation, although they do admit that this appears to be counterintuitive.  Well there's a reason for that isn't there? It's because it's nonsense. What they also cannot bring themselves to admit is that their own welfare and entitlement culture policies have helped create the sort of attitude which means too many British people, and in particular young people, do not want to do the kind of work on offer to them and don't make especially good employees even if they do. When you add into this mix a huge influx of people hungry for work and willing to work for low pay you create joblessness amongst Britons.

Economics is not called the dismal science for nothing. Economists can rarely agree on anything and certainly nothing as complex as the economics of a fluid and constantly changing workforce in a country like Britain. But they can agree on the law of supply and demand. That tells us a lot surely? If you have a large influx of people willing to work for lower wages that means that employers can afford not to pay more and will naturally want to employ those who are cheaper and often more productive. What is counter intuitive about that? We're not talking quantum mechanics here.

What politicians have to get to grips with is that it is their job to reconcile competing interests in our jobs market as much as in any other sphere. On the one hand we have hundreds of thousands of people out of work and turning their noses up at low paid jobs doing tedious and unrewarding work. On the other hand we have hundreds of thousands of immigrants only too willing to do this work. And you have employers. They are under economic pressure and will want to employ the best people at the lowest cost. If they can do so without providing training then they will. If they can get away with paying the minimum wage then they will. Only curtailing supply will change that.

But what about skilled and highly educated workers? Well we could always train and educate our own people first. Again, if employers can import people to cut costs then they will. But we don't have to let them. They will argue that it will damage their businesses and the economy if we don't allow them enough skilled workers from abroad. But it will damage society and the economy if we allow in too many and don't train our own people. Businesses have a responsibility to society as well as the economy and their own bottom line.

It is of course true that we have short term shortfalls of trained scientists and engineers, shortages that only immigrants can fill. But long term we need to address this situation in a way that is healthier for society as a whole. If our young people are not learning the right skills or taking the right degrees then give them incentives to do so. Cut the cost of tuition for skills and degrees that are in demand. Give tax breaks for apprenticeships. There are any number of ways of encouraging the improvement of skills.

Of course immigration is denying people jobs in this country. That is obvious to anyone. This is not to say that immigration is a bad thing and should be stopped completely. We can all point to the clear advantages of Britain's more open and welcoming attitude and to countries with the opposite attitude who are staring long term decline and a demographic catastrophe in the face.  But immigration needs to be controlled for the benefit of those already here and indeed for those coming here hoping to make a decent life for themselves and their children. We need to keep a tight rein on who we allow to come here and work. That ought to be obvious and uncontroversial