Wednesday, 29 February 2012

PMQs 29th February 2012 - The Assertive Lib Dems Edition

Is an assertive Lib Dem an oxymoron? I only ask because Lib Dems, we are led to believe, are asserting themselves in government and forcing through various measures and reforms. There are various methods they use for doing so. If they have ministers in charge of the relevant department it is easier, notwithstanding the objections of select committees which can, we are told, be selectively ignored by the usually ultra democratic Lib Dems. But it was a committee that split on party lines they argue. Yes but the other party are your coalition partners. Imagine the fuss if the nasty Tories did the same to them.

The latest method for trying to assert themselves, other than the licensed to roam and shoot his mouth off Lord Oakeshott (as good a reason as I've seen for the abolition of the House of Lords) is the open letter. This is a form of thinking out loud, of arguing for change via the media and thus playing to their own supporters who, thanks to the lack of nice offices and chauffeur driven cars, often fail to understand the benefits of being in government. We are led to believe that most of the agreements around coalition policy are agreed in what has become known as 'the quad'. This is Dave and George for the Tories and Nick and Danny for the Lib Dems. Yet apparently open letters are also necessary.

At last week's PMQs, as Forrest raised the issue of the NHS once again, I remarked that Nick Clegg seemed to shift uneasily in his seat. Nick has been arguing forcefully, or at least as forcefully as he is capable of, for these NHS reforms, often alongside Dave and indeed mouthed as much to Forrest today. Yet seated alongside Dave last week he looked even more uncomfortable than the PM. And all he had to do was sit there and look content without looking smug. Sure enough though, just a few days later, there he was sending out another letter signed with Shirley Williams talking about yet more amendments and safeguards for the NHS. Isn't coalition politics wonderful?

For a moment today Dave and Nick must have thought that they were off the hook. Forrest took on what passes for him as a statesmanlike demeanour and asked one of those cross party agreement questions about the Leveson Inquiry. Dave agreed with him that it was awful what was being alleged about the police and News International.

But then came the stinger. In a startling example of shallow and cheap opportunism even for him, Forrest tried to make political hay out of Michael Gove's remarks about the inquiry having a chilling effect on press freedom. Forrest also made snide insinuations about Gove's links with certain press barons, presumably a reference to Gove's former employment with The Times. It was plain nasty and unprincipled, perhaps a sure sign of his growing confidence. He may soon be picking fights with Tories in Commons bars. If however he is signalling that Labour intend to argue for regulation of the press he may find more than just News International aligned against him.

Dave stayed calm, no doubt relieved not to be having to talk about the NHS, and backed Gove and freedom of the press. It isn't as if Gove was wrong, the press in this country is in a peculiar place and running scared of certain types of stories while Leveson investigates. We only have to look at the antics of Dominque Strauss Kahn who would now be running for president of his country were it not for the fact he stepped out of line in an Anglo Saxon state where the press are more fearless and unwilling to be as compliant as their French colleagues.

But then, for the fourth week in succession, Forrest went on what he hopes will be Dave's poll tax, perhaps forgetting that the Tories did away with the poll tax and the prime minister who had brought it in and won another election after. Labour had to change leader, twice, and become New Labour before they finally won power, a government that Forrest now seems to regard as an unwelcome aberration.

Anyway, he was on to his pet subject now and there followed the usual exchange of people who were against the reforms from Forrest and people who backed them from Dave accompanied by chants from backbenchers echoing their respective leaders, a particularly poor and embarrassing attempt from Labour this week but it does none of them any favours. It felt like deja vu and, as the PM pointed out, was once again about process and politics and not about specifics. Labour, he said, had once been in favour of many of the items in the bill but now, opportunistically, were dead set against and banging away about it every week without ever really saying anything new.

It was all very tedious and repetitive, only lightened by Forrest speaking what looked suspiciously like extemporaneously for a change as he took the opportunity to have a dig at Clegg who mouthed from a sedentary position next to Dave that he backed the bill. He ought to put it in writing.

It is fair to say that Forrest gave another good performance, although Cameron was on form too with some decent lines about Labour opportunism and lack of any policies to address the problems they diagnose.The problem Forrest may have is that the NHS bill will soon be an act on the statute book. Whatever will he talk about then?

Most telling today however was the contribution of some Tory backbenchers who are becoming increasingly irritated by those assertive Lib Dems who in turn will have been worried by signs that Labour intend to cause problems for them with regard to their dithering over the NHS. And Clegg was the victim of not very friendly fire as Tory Stewart Jackson asked if immigration policy, already in trouble, will fall victim to the curse of Clegg. A good line that.

This was only matched by Tory delight at the intervention of Unite's leader and his call for civil disobedience and general strikes during the Olympics. Dave and supportive backbenchers took every opportunity to point this out and Labour's silence about their biggest donor. Civil disobedience is a tricky subject for Forrest's class warriors, after all one of their number started a one man war against Tories in Strangers' Bar last week.

Finally we heard once more from Peter Bone, who for once had not conducted a poll of his family and Mrs Bone but asked a question off his own bat. What would happen, he asked, if the PM were to be incapacitated? Would Nick step in? Dave answered that he had no intention of being incapacitated. But it remains an interesting question. If Dave were somehow taken out by terrorists, presumably a Tory like William Hague would step up, but it is not entirely clear. Perhaps Nick will write an open letter asking for clarification. Or we could ask Lord Oakeshott, he's sure to have an opinion.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Diaspora of the Demented and Delusional

So the Occupy movement has finally been moved from its position outside St Pauls. What did they achieve? Well they got an awful lot of publicity which, in this 24 hour, interconnected media world, has to be a good thing doesn't it?

Doesn't that depend on what it is you are trying to say though? And ultimately that was their problem. They didn't know, so how was the world supposed to? It boiled down to the fact that the world is unfair. But we knew that. It's something you get very upset about as a teenager and young adult. And then you grow up and try to make the best of what talent you have and what opportunities you can create. That's probably a more productive attitude than pitching a tent and taking a crap in a national monument.

The sort of people who occupied a small area outside a cathedral are the same sort of people who angrily protest that companies are giving young people work experience and treating them like slave labour. That's why their accidental decision to pitch tents outside St Pauls rather than a cathedral of capitalism was actually a kind of flawed genius. The woolly minded Church of England lived up to all of the stereotypes and vacillated, wrung its hands and looked suitably tortured. They felt that they ought to be on the side of these oppressed and brave people even if they couldn't readily identify who was oppressing them.

And of course this was a bandwagon that Forrest bravely hitched himself to when the sort of papers he reads told us all that this was a movement that was going to change the world. Ooh, said Forrest, that sounds good, I'd better back them. That's what I came into politics for, well that and because I can't really do anything else.

And now they are gone. There are various rumours about them going elsewhere and starting again. But I suspect that this diaspora of the demented and delusional will spell the end of this particular revolution.

Monday, 27 February 2012

A Greek Waiter Exacts Revenge

For this Greek waiter, it seems, revenge is a drink best served ice cold.

Spotted: A Boris Bus

I just saw the first of Boris's buses on the 38 route on Graham Road in Hackney. If nothing else we should all hope that he wins May's election if only for his greater potential for regular and satisfying alliteration. Ken just doesn't do it.

The bus was packed to the rafters, albeit mostly with journalists I suspect. Seldom have I seen a bus load of people who looked more well heeled, recognisable and so unaccustomed to public transport, even in London. I wonder if they all paid?

As I was making my way down the road, before the bus came, I saw a photographer on the pavement, waiting for its appearance. The driver in one of the other buses leaned out of his cab and informed him that it would be coming soon and in answer to the photographers questions, waxed lyrical about it and said how excited they all were by it and how nice it is to drive. This is definitively not always the case. I have driven buses in the past and so I know.

Driving in convoy with the Boris bus was another bus, an old Routemaster with banners on the side of it talking about Boris's vanity project and the cost of these buses. I wish I had had my camera with me. I'm assuming that this was a Labour Party stunt for Ken Livingstone. If it isn't feel free to let me know.

Assuming that I am correct however, this is another example of Labour's peculiar attitude to the public finances. Livingstone himself has been making all kinds of uncosted and unaffordable promises to try and get re-elected in May. And Labour of course were very free with money when they were in power, spending it on architect designed and thus expensive schools and hospitals instead of cheaper off the shelf examples, not to mention the ruinously expensive PFI projects so that Gordon could keep all of the spending off the books. They launched their 2010 election campaign from the vastly expensive new Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, a striking building for sure, but hardly necessary for better patient care.

So it ill behoves them now to be critical of Boris for daring to do something bold and have a new bus designed. It looks great. Where he should be criticised is in the halfway house he has accepted. The buses will have conductors on them who are not conductors, do not take fares or Oyster cards and are just there for safety reasons, and then only for part of the day. These buses look stylish and rather funky, a nice composite of the old and the new and seem to have fired public enthusiasm. It would be nice however if they could truly replace the much loved and very much missed old Routemaster properly, allow people to jump on and off them between stops regardless of the time of day, and have conductors on board who perform that role all day long.

By allowing all of this, Boris would be making public transport more efficient and user friendly at a stroke. He would also, I would suggest, do more for easing congestion in London and make the daily commute better for all. It would be more than Ken Livingstone ever did with his congestion charging and promises to cut fares. When people use these buses they will like or even love them. But only if they fulfil their promise and become modern Routemasters.


See here  or here for another example of Livingstone's and Labour hypocrisy, this time on fat cats and tax avoidance.


Since writing the above I have had chance to travel on the Boris bus. It's lovely, like a kind of art deco take on buses. The interior is rather plush, for a bus and the stairs down to that platform that allows you to get off nearly when you want is wonderful. I urge you to try it out. It's still a bus of course but as buses go this is a peach, and I speak as someone who used to earn his living driving ones in Birmingham that were nearly as old as I am. London services by comparison with the provinces are cutting edge and the Boris bus, though it cannot avoid London's congestion, makes the experience almost pleasurable.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Kenny Delivers

In Kenny we trusted last year when the king returned and today, after a mixed and at times controversial season, he delivered. As Steven Gerrard didn't quite say, Liverpool tend to do things by the skin of their chattering teeth on these occasions, but my god it makes for some exciting and edge of your seat football.

So, the first trophy in six years is in the cabinet with the FA Cup still a distinct possibility. Fourth place and Champions League? That may be a step too far, especially with Arsenal seemingly having another of their late season spurts (although Liverpool play them next week) but this is a start and a great one.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Nothing Is Certain: We Should All, Like Richard Dawkins, Be Agnostic

To all of the cretins trumpeting in triumph because Richard Dawkins has said that he is actually agnostic and cannot prove beyond doubt that there is not a god, I say duh! Of course. The man is a scientist and a highly accomplished and celebrated one in addition to the world's most famous (now that Christopher Hitchens is sadly no longer with us) atheist/agnostic.

Good scientists, that's the ones who talk about evidence and not consensus, know that nothing is ever 100% proven and beyond doubt. When we are talking about something as nebulous as belief in a deity then we can infer a great deal from our knowledge of the human state, of the complete lack of proof, of the inconsistencies and absurdities of the various religions, of evidence that we are hard wired to believe, and that the various states of belief and transcendence claimed by the religious are quantitatively no different to those created by hypnosis and snake oil salesmen.

But can we prove that a god does not exist? Of course not. You cannot prove a negative. But then, as others have pointed out, we cannot prove that we are not all ruled by a flying spaghetti monster in invisible orbit above the Earth either.

By acknowledging all of this, Dawkins is just being honest and a good scientist. He is being a great deal more honest and open than many of those he debates with who claim certainty because of a warm fuzzy feeling or the voices in their heads.

Dawkins, and people like him, just like to point out that only the religious demand, and all too often get, respect for their beliefs. All too often they demand and get much much more, including a veto on laws and morality and the right to tell other people how to lead their lives, or indeed who they can marry. They do so because of a belief that is ultimately no different to belief in fairies, UFOs, voodoo, tarot cards, psychics or levitating pasta. The difference is we are allowed to mock these beliefs, despite the fact that we cannot comprehensively disprove them.

The definitive argument for me is always this one: If you genuinely believe in your god and genuinely believe that you will get your reward in heaven for that belief, then good for you. But surely that means that you should leave those of us who don't alone? Surely if your god is going to sort it all out when we all go up to meet him, then what we do during our sinful lives is his and our business and none of yours? So why not just revere your god in private and leave the rest of us alone? Why demand special privileges, why demand the right to demonstrate your belief when you believe in an omniscient god who can read your mind? Why become angry and aggressive and sometimes even violent on behalf of your omnipotent and omniscient god? Surely he doesn't need your help, just your unquestioning adherence, since he can't be bothered, in his wisdom, to come up with a more believable story and a more fair and just world. Why, most of all, demand the right to dictate morality and even dress and eating codes to the rest of us? Surely the god you all believe in, who is great apparently, is big enough and old enough and indeed omnipotent enough to look after himself?

How is this being unreasonable? How is this being militant or even aggressive? Live and let live, turn the other cheek. If you are convinced you are right then leave the rest of us to be agnostic while we wait for some decent evidence.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Labour Isn't Working Again - Thanks to Labour

Aha! say the loony left, look at those evil capitalists profiting from and even defrauding the public purse. The A4e case is manna from heaven for those who regard all public employees as ministering angels and anyone in the private sector as evil and rapacious.

Let us therefore point out a few facts to them. It seems that the fraud at A4e was actually committed by only 4 people, that they were committing what may well be a criminal offence, something not unknown in the public sector one might suggest, we only have to ask our MPs and those who try to police their expenses.

Fraud and criminality takes place in all walks of life but is actually much more common in the public sphere where controls tend to be more lax. I used to work for a local authority where helping yourself to stationery was seen as a perk of the job as was taking your fair share of sick days. I once went on holiday with a couple of colleagues, one of whom, on our return, erroneously claimed that her lack of a tan was because she had been ill the whole time and not because she had to sit in the shade constantly wearing factor 100 for fear of burning. Her boss spoke to human resources and she was given the time back as sick leave. Elsewhere in the same department, some of the then student grants staff created some fictitious students and pocketed their grants. 

We have to challenge this increasingly pervasive but bizarre notion that profit making business is a bad and corrosive thing for society. What do they imagine made Britain rich and powerful in the world, the NHS and welfare state? Most of the advances we have enjoyed in technology, science, medicine, food and entertainment come because people somewhere saw a chance to make money and competed with one another to provide it. We are offered a service and pay people who, if they do it well and we keep going back, make profits. It drives innovation and hard work. It is why capitalism, for all of its flaws, flourished and the communist block collapsed. It's why when the Berlin wall fell the east Germans emerged from their side in  Trabants instead of VW Golfs.

And do they imagine that those in the public sector are immune from the profit motive? A salary is your reward for work done. A nurse may well get a warm glow and great job satisfaction from doing his or her job but she makes a profit in the same way that oil and car companies do. She or he uses the spare money, their profit, to spend on what they want. It's the way modern advanced economies work, yet this seems to be news to the left.

The commotion this week about work experience is another example of the bizarre mindset of some on the left. Work experience is slavery and exploitation they shout from their high horses. No it's not. It does what it says on the tin. It gives experience to those who lack any, gets them out of the house, teaches them the rewards of work and getting up in the morning and gives them an opportunity to start their careers instead of languishing at home.

Taking people on this way is not costless to these businesses. Even those expected to stack shelves have to be shown what to do and how to do it.

And so what if it means stacking shelves? We all have to start somewhere. Most of us have done jobs like stacking shelves, waiting or serving in pubs and bars. It's a question of what needs to be done to earn money, something which you might imagine the Labour Party would appreciate.

Episodes like this tend to support those of us who think they have ceased speaking for the working population of this country and now seem to spend their time supporting those who don't want to work, whilst allowing hundreds of thousands of immigrants in to take the jobs and depress the wages of those who do want to work. That Forrest and his gang genuinely think they have identified an idea that will win them support shows just how other worldly they are. But then what should we expect from people who have always worked in the public sector and done very nicely out of it indeed. It's probably why they think it needs to be expanded ever more and that this will mysteriously grow the British economy. It's why Britain is mired in Gordon Brown's debt and Labour's only answer is to borrow more and create more public sector jobs.

Labour still isn't working and the Labour Party still struggles with the concept. 

Some Scientific Reassurance

Fancy a little light reading for this weekend? Want something reassuring about the world and the state of our planet? Then take a look at this, a lecture given to a House of Commons seminar about climate change by one of the most celebrated specialists on the planet, Professor Richard Lindzen, of MIT.

Lindzen is the expert the alarmists and Green Meanies hate, for the simple reason that he knows what he is talking about and has evidence, plenty of it, to support his analysis that the planet is not heading towards disaster and catastrophe, that yes the climate is changing because that is what climates do. But there is actually very little to worry about and we certainly shouldn't be bankrupting ourselves and forcing poor people to choose between heating and eating for the sake of this great panic.

Lindzen is essentially saying what we sceptics have been saying for years but he is doing so in his remarkably  calm and authoritative way. This is a man who is respected and thus extremely difficult to challenge, especially by those who like to fix the argument in their favour. It is people like him that embolden people like me to keep fighting against the tide and the name calling and point to the real inconvenient truth - the world and humanity faces much greater and more pressing challenges than climate change and we need to get our priorities straight.

This is just another story in long history of science in which a consensus develops and people fight tooth and nail to defend it despite contrary evidence. Science is not supposed to work this way. Ultimately it doesn't work like that because enough people fight to bring the truth out. As Lindzen has said in the past: we, the sceptics, will win this argument. We will win because we are right and have all of the evidence on our side.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Get Radical, George

Lots of people, as is traditional, are offering George Osborne advice in the run up to next month's Budget, including the Shadow Chancellor with his strange obsession with VAT, a tax on goods which, if it had any effect at all, would just make Chinese made consumer items that little bit cheaper, which is hard to reconcile with a desire to export our way back to prosperity. Essentially, however, what Balls is doing is urging various tax cuts a month in advance in the hope that one of them makes it into Osborne's Budget. Then Balls will claim credit, whilst at the same time accusing the Chancellor of not doing enough, being complacent, cutting too far and too fast - delete as appropriate.

Anyway, since everyone else seems to be offering advice I may as well do the same. I actually, as I have done consistently since before the election, back the Lib Dems plan to raise personal allowances as quickly as possible to £10,000. This is a good and sensible policy which rewards work and helps out those at the bottom of the earnings scale the most. It fits beautifully into the overall policy framework that the Coalition is trying to achieve. Osborne ought to commend it to the House and the country, and as soon as possible.

How is it to be paid for? With more cuts. There is plenty of fat to be removed painlessly from government as we have seen this week with the announcement that borrowing is to come in at less than expected. We have saved money, a not insubstantial £9 billion, almost without trying and just being a little more prudent. Just imagine how much waste they could find if they looked properly. Only last week savings of £5 billion were trumpeted by Francis Maude on bureaucracy. He claimed that the civil service has been reduced to its smallest size since the war. But this was done by a bit of sleight of hand. It didn't include quangos. So include quangos. The bonfire of them we were supposed to see never sparked into life. Burn them.

But I would argue that now is the time for this reforming government to get really radical with the public finances and with our tax system. We could have real joined up government and start reversing the vast system of taxes, benefits and tax credits created over the last 60 years and in particular by Gordon Brown.

For a start we should signal the end of universal benefits that go to anyone regardless of wealth. We cannot afford them and they just create bureaucracy so that we can take with one hand to give back with another. Tory MPs are said to be demanding the reversal of the policy to take away child benefit from those paying the higher rate of tax. This is a mistake. All such benefits should be means tested so that they only go to those who really need them.

Of course this is politically difficult. This is why it should go hand in hand with a fundamental reform of taxes. We should start with that £10,000 allowance. To this we should add the abolition of the 50% top rate, which is not raising as much money as was expected. And we should go further. It's time for a flat tax for all. We should abolish the 40% rate too which has been slowly slipping down the income scales and is now hitting nurses, teachers, police inspectors and middle managers.

Announcing this of course would cause howls of protest and angry accusations about the abandonment of fairness. But a flat tax is perfectly fair. One set at say 25%, with a high personal allowance, would mean that everyone paid the same rate but those earning 10 times more than the average would still pay 10 times the tax. That's how percentages work. How is that unfair?

We could help make this work by having a sliding scale of personal allowances. So it would be £10,000 for those earning up to say £40,000 meaning that those earning the least would benefit the most. It would then gradually decrease by £1,000 per £10,000 of income until those earning for instance £120,000 lost any allowance altogether.

It is this kind of fresh and radical thinking that the government ought to be considering. It would be an incentive for people to work and would advertise Britain as open for business and for those wishing to set up businesses. It would be a signal that the Conservatives, unlike Labour and indeed the Lib Dems, do not think that people who earn good money, who work hard and have done all of the right things like getting an education and skills and are now enjoying the fruits of their labours should be punished. It is these sort of people the country needs to make us competitive in the world. It is these sort of policies that will promote the growth this country so desperately needs.

The Modern, Tolerant Labour Party Glasgow Kisses an Opponent

Earlier this week, in the wake of that screaming woman assailing the Health Secretary, I wrote this paragraph:

Have you ever noticed by the way that lefties by and large are much more intolerant of people with different opinions than those on the right? They are much more likely to resort to abuse and to get angry. They are much more to likely to use ad hominem attacks. Watch any political debate and see how often the leftie on the panel interrupts their interlocutor while the Tory tends to make his or her point and then listens politely to the opposing view. 

Now, according to The Sun, a Labour MP has allegedly headbutted a Conservative MP in an unprovoked attack in a House of Commons bar. Little did I realise that, in addition to all of the above, some are also willing to use Glasgow kisses. Still, perhaps Eric Joyce should remember that a former deputy leader of his party once got into a brawl with a member of the public. He is now a peer and aiming to be a police commissioner. Perhaps he will claim that it was a moment of madness brought on by what those evil Tories are doing to his beloved NHS. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

An Easy Tax Cut

Entirely predictably, it is reported that HMRC has concluded that the 50p tax rate, a Brown trap implemented just before the last election, is raising less money than was expected. This is because people object to self righteous politicians confiscating half or more of their earnings. They thus take avoidance measures including setting themselves up as companies.

At the weekend it was revealed that Moira Stuart, who presents adverts for HMRC telling us all to send our tax returns in, has very sensibly made such an arrangement herself. Good for her. Very sensible as you would expect of the wonderful and forever calm Ms Stuart.

The 50p tax is wrong in so many ways it should have been abolished the moment this government came to power. Yet it is seen as a symbol of these austere times that we are all in it together. Nonsense of course but that's politics. Brown and Darling implemented this measure, not because they thought it would raise them money but to create trouble for the Tories. That's why it should have been abolished at the first opportunity.

This study however now gives Osborne the perfect opportunity and political cover to get rid of this measure once and for all. It is a piece of political chicanery dressed up as principle and one that is actually self defeating since it raises less money. But most of all, when we are trying to get business to invest their saved billions in this country, it is a disastrous signal to send to the world. It is too much to hope that Osborne will be able to do much about lowering taxes at the budget next month as the money is not there to do so - although, as Liam Fox has argued as has this blog in the past, they could always pay for tax cuts by cutting some more fat from public spending. But when a tax measure is damaging the competititiveness of the country and raising less money it should certainly be despatched to the history books.

Labour will of course make much of it as was always the intention. But they themselves said it was a temporary measure, although Forrest has hinted it should be permanent. That's the modern Labour Party all over. They once abolished 10p tax for the poor for similar reasons that had nothing to do with principle and everything to do with political point scoring. Now they are regressing to their comfort zone of the politics of envy and to hell with what damage it does to the long term prospects of the country and the unemployed.  Abolishing this tax would be part of a strategy for growth and creating jobs and investment. That is what they say they want.

Marie Colvin: Shooting The Messenger

Sad news today about the death of The Sunday Times's superb foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, killed by the indiscriminate shelling of civilians and indeed anyone by the desperate and cowardly Syrian regime. She was a brave, passionate but always dispassionate writer who risked her life to bring us the truth, was maimed and eventually lost her life for her trouble. David Cameron today took the unusual but very justified decision to pay tribute to her at today's PMQs alongside our fallen servicemen. Her last piece is available outside the Sunday Times paywall. Read it here.


It is now being reported that Syrian forces were actually quite deliberately targeting foreign journalists and trying to kill them, presumably because they object to stories about their serial human rights abuses being disseminated to a shocked and disgusted world. Such viciousness must surely be a wake up call to the world. Can we really stand by and watch this kind of slaughter without doing anything? When a regime is quite literally shooting the messenger we should be very fearful of what their intentions are if this is allowed to continue.

PMQs 22nd February 2012 - The Madness of NHS Reforms III Edition

We all dodged a bullet last week. Owing to the recess our MPs enjoyed (although not peers, I guess they need to keep attending to pick up the fees) there was no PMQs on the day the latest unemployment figures were released. This meant that we did not have to see Forrest doing that sad shake of the head he has taken to employing whenever he is trying not to look too delighted at the government's misfortunes.

Ed Balls struggles manfully not to look smug on such occasions. Forrest shakes his head and whinily tells us all how disappointed he is. We see it more or less every week now. He actually looks rather like Pitt the Younger when he does this - not the 18th century British politician who introduced income taxes for the first time, but the version of him created by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton in Blackadder, the one who co starred with Colin the dachshund and whined not about unemployment but about his homework.

Of course there was always the possibility that Forrest might not have gone on unemployment at all last week. He might have kept nagging away on the NHS because that was what he did this week. It was the third PMQs in a row.

Forrest has form in this respect. The general agenda in politics changes on a daily basis and so the focus of PMQs tends to change with it. Yet Forrest's record is that he finds a successful tactic or subject and sticks to it. Perhaps its a consequence of his school days and the bullying he undoubtedly received. Bullies tend to identify a weakness and focus on it relentlessly. It's payback time. Forrest is sticking it to Flashman for being so beastly to the NHS. Pitt the Younger again you see.

It certainly bothers Dave. It does discombobulate him as his first answer showed when he just talked about extra money in a disconcertingly Brownlike way. But this week he notably improved as the session went on, questioning why Labour are now opposed to things they used to support like competition and patient choice. This is a prime minister who needs his opponent to be at his best to make him raise his own game. He started rather slowly and yet notably improved as the session and Forrest's questions got longer. This is actually Forrest's great failing, okay greatest failing among many. He starts concise and gets longer and longer so that nobody really knows what the question is. Those who complain that Dave never answers the questions (what PM ever does?) would do well to tell us what they thought the question was. Dave could be forgiven for not knowing.

The house was also on rowdy form - that's what the national religion of the NHS does to people as Andrew Lansley found out this week - which meant that Speaker Bercow, the man who demands equal heights with former speakers, was on his feet giving his usual tedious speeches about what the public wants and how MPs should be more statesmanlike. I'll tell you what we want, Mr Bercow, we want you to shut up and maybe just shout 'order, order' once in a while.

Labour do have their tails up on this issue, taunting Andrew Lansley who tried and failed to look insouciant. The opposition backbenches were doing a very decent collective impression of that elderly deranged lady on Whitehall on Monday, shouting and bawling and giving Bercow the opportunity to deliver one of his lectures to them all, even including the Shadow Chancellor.

And the government look uneasy on the health reforms, particularly Nick Clegg, whose practised blank expression never slipped, but he did shift uneasily in his seat this week, perhaps as he thought about his own party's intention to try and force a debate on the issue. How he must occasionally pine for the good old days when such conferences didn't matter.

To his credit however, the PM seems determined to push through the bill and the reforms. He defended the concept of competition when he pointed out that Labour had once been in favour of it too. Labour, who were just a few months ago mocking him for U turns, cannot now force him to do the same over their favourite sacred cow.

And Dave had a trick up his sleeve. Someone had procured for him a copy of a Labour briefing document which exposed their cynical opportunism. They have called for a vote on a risk register this evening and yet, the PM noted, Forrest didn't seem to want to talk about it. This, he alleged, and the document seemed to prove, was because they knew that Andy Burnham, sat proudly alongside his leader again, had opposed such a move when in government. That, Dave said, was Labour all over and it allowed him to finish on a flourish.

But this NHS issue is not going anywhere. The man who had once managed to disarm the service as an issue and even talked about it in those awful election posters, is now facing the fight of his life on the reforms every week. To his credit he is not backing down and today came out fighting more than in previous weeks, giving a much better account of himself.

Labour and Forrest seem determined to make hay while the sun shines on NHS reform. They seem convinced that it will work for them. Forrest even claimed that it will become Dave's poll tax. He wishes.

Presumably the government have decided that they are just going to have to take punishment on this issue until it is safely parked on the statute book. They had just better hope that it delivers the improvements they claim it will. Whatever happens, Labour, not known for their consistency or principled opposition, will blame whatever ills afflict the NHS on the Lansley reforms whether or not this is fair. Fortunately, despite the state of the economy and the cuts, the Tories are still doing surprisingly well in the polls and so this will not damage them too much so long as it ceases to be an issue by the election. By then they may even be able to point to improvements and contrast England with Wales as Cameron has done from time to time during PMQs to good effect.

Overall this was a good performance by both leaders who came out fighting once again. Dave rediscovered his form and Forrest kept his run going. The big question for him is whether he can sustain it when the agenda moves on. Maybe the confidence he will have gained recently will allow him once in a while to depart from the script and think on his feet. For all that he has done better recently, Colin the Dachshund would still look a better bet to be elected prime minister, even in a non rotten borough.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Screaming About Philanthropy

Apparently a version of Edvard Munch's The Scream, the second most famous painting in the world after The Mona Lisa, is shortly to go up for auction. It is expected to fetch up to or beyond $80 million. I suspect it will fetch north of $100 million. Some will see this as a further sign that there are people out there with altogether too much money.

Wouldn't it be nice however if someone, one of the world's billionaires, perhaps someone who has made a fortune from the internet or the likes of Phillip Green who dodges British tax by heading off to Monaco whenever he can, were to buy it and then offer to put it on display at The National Gallery. Just because I support the right of the very rich to be very rich does not mean I think they shouldn't be generous with their money in the best traditions of the rich and philanthropic. Maybe some bankers and hedge funders should club together and buy it with their bonuses. It would be a smart PR move.

Rationality and the NHS

Anyone would think, looking at that screeching harpie who confronted Andrew Lansley outside Downing Street yesterday, that this mild mannered man was doing something unspeakable to their daughters. It was very much like the kind of scene you see outside courts when rapists and paedophiles are put on trial and the mobs congregate to scream abuse at them.

Have you ever noticed by the way that lefties by and large are much more intolerant of people with different opinions than those on the right? They are much more likely to resort to abuse and to get angry. They are much more to likely to use ad hominem attacks. Watch any political debate and see how often the leftie on the panel interrupts their interlocutor while the Tory tends to make his or her point and then listens politely to the opposing view.

I don't pretend to understand what it is that Lansley is proposing that generates this kind of anger and even hatred. But it seems to be that favourite topic of the rabble rousing left, privatisation. Lansley, they argue, just as they always do, is privatising our beloved NHS by stealth. Cue foaming at the mouth.

Yet even if this were true, which it isn't, so what? Would these rabid creatures care to explain what difference it makes who provides our healthcare if it remains free at the point of use? Do the public care about this as they allege, or is it just something of a red rag to those who want to keep the red flag flying here?

The prime beef they seem to have is with profits. Lefties don't like profits. Or at least they don't like the idea that someone somewhere is making money out of them. It's perfectly okay for them to do so of course. It's perfectly okay for public sector workers to have better pensions and salaries paid for by everyone else. It's perfectly okay for union members to establish a monopoly of sorts and extort huge salaries out of us for the privilege of having a trouble free Olympics this year.

But if someone, a banker say - it's so much better for their sense of outrage if it can be a banker - finds a way of providing a service cheaper than in the public sector and then pockets the difference this infuriates them. It's money being taken out of the NHS they angrily argue. Except of course it isn't. They are providing a service cheaper by being more efficient meaning that they are actually taking less out. This is something that simply doesn't compute with lefties. Someone is taking money out of the NHS and putting it in his Savile Row pocket and this is WRONG.

And it is this simple inability to talk logically about the NHS which means that the likes of Lansley who has a genuine desire to make it better will be hated and treated this way until he or Dave finally has enough. It is pointless to point out the benefits of competition. In vain do we argue about the wastefulness of public provision and the endless scandals about poor care, poor budgetary controls, dirty wards and poor outcomes. The lefties just assume it is lack of money and investment and will brook no argument.

And what is Labour's solution? More targets. Forrest is today arguing, just as he did in their 2010 manifesto, that Labour would provide guarantees of length of waiting times and so on  because these all worked so well in the past. It is what we have come to expect of his particular brand of opposition, which takes that word entirely literally and sees no need for offering alternatives.

The NHS, as Nigel Lawson bitterly pointed out all of those years ago, is the closest this country has to a religion these days. Lefties revere it and cannot see its flaws. They are entirely incapable of seeing that a system that was created with all of the right intentions has never worked properly and is incapable of rising to the challenges ahead without fundamental reform. Tories who argue for surrender on this issue underestimate the intelligence of the public. This is an argument that can be won if they can be bothered to make it. After all, as Sayeeda Warsi argued last week, religion is becoming marginalised because it is losing the battle of ideas and is seen as outdated. The same is true of our beloved NHS. The moral behind it is right, it's just its quaint customs and the angry zealots who defend it come what may we can do without.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Test Tube Burgers: Will the Green Meanies Be For or Against?

It was reported over the weekend that scientists are on the verge of a breakthrough that ought to thrill and excite us all. It seems that stem cell technology may mean that we are soon able to grow test tube meat - a burger from the men and women in white coats. The first such meat may well be grown in the next few months. It will be vastly expensive at first of course, but it is a first step to revolutionising food production.

This, on the face of it, so long as you look at things rationally and objectively and don't get worried about Frankenstein implications, is wonderful news. An industry that grows meat this way would be much more efficient than current farming methods, which have to feed live animals, not always in lovely pastures in verdant valleys and fatten them up - a slow and uneconomic way of producing food with all kinds of problems ranging from disease and hygiene to arguments about the morality of how those animals live to how they are eventually transported and slaughtered. Quite apart from anything else  it would be fascinating to see how the various idiotic religious restrictions on meat production and consumption would be adapted - perhaps this would enable Jews and Muslims to start eating pork, although don't bet on it.

It would mean that, in a world in which meat is in ever greater demand thanks to the increasing wealth and prosperity of countries like China and India, food scarcity would be less problematic. More than that it would be remarkably good news for the environment. The methane emitted by the world's cattle is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 and so growing meat this way would make more of a difference to that problem, if indeed you think it is a problem, than a million electric cars or wind turbines will ever do. Land currently devoted to growing food for livestock could be used for other methods. It's hard to see a downside, unless of course scientists find it had to replicate that authentic real meat taste.

But don't expect this news to be greeted enthusiastically by the green lobby. They are not usually keen on anything which they regard as industrial and non-natural. There will be scare stories about Frankenstein science as already mentioned; there will be worries about cancer and of this meat somehow affecting the rest of the food chain in some mysterious way. It will all be nonsense of course but when has that ever stopped them?

This is why I call them Green Meanies. Most modern environmentalists are just neo Malthusians who are constantly disappointed and indeed angry at the world's refusal to accept their slanted view of the world, which is essentially that mankind is a cancer on our beautiful planet and we need to controlled and go back to living in huts. They oppose more or less all new technologies, from nuclear power, research into nuclear fusion and the fracking to exploit new shale gas reserves to genetically modified crops, which might also make feeding people easier and cheaper.

And this latest development is further proof that their idea that economic growth is undesirable is a nonsense too. Economic growth is the driver of technological and scientific change. The Green Meanies wish to stop progress as a means of saving the planet when in fact, as history has demonstrated repeatedly, it is our species drive to adapt and change and keep advancing which is much more likely to make the planet a better place to live in.

Fortunately evil capitalists keep driving change because they think they might be able to make a quid or two out of it. That is why car manufacturers keep making their vehicles ever more efficient and safer and why, if the politicians leave things alone, we will find solutions to energy and food problems and why we are still no closer to mythical peak oil.

That we are now reaching a point when cows may only ever be seen in idyllic bucolic pictures or maybe in cowboy movies is testimony to human resourcefulness. The self righteous and sanctimonious Green movement is something that our politicians pay far too much attention to. They are an impediment to human advancement and the proper appreciation of our planet.

Bonus Time

This blog, I have to tell you, has been doing very well lately. My numbers have been excellent and on a steep upward curve. Thanks to all of my readers for your continuing support.

I have to say however that I am minded to give myself a bonus. I realise that this will likely incur the wrath of Forrest and his chums who will demand that I invite a member of the public to sit on my remuneration committee and will look askance at my plans to turn myself into a company to avoid tax. But that's what you pay for success in this country. Don't be surprised if George refuses to cut the 50% tax rate next month, this blog goes offshore in preparation for the bonanza to come.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Tyrannical Rule of Law

As Theresa May prepares to head off to Jordan to conduct further delicate negotiations with a foreign power in order to satisfy the requirements of a foreign court, is it perhaps time we started questioning our unquestioning attachment to the notion of the rule of law?

What is the rule of law after all? It has become one of those touchstones of western democracy, something we must give unquestioning adherence to like freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial and the like. But all too often this unquestioning attitude creates problems of its own. Freedom of speech after all is not unqualified, as various people on Twitter and certain footballers have found to their cost.

So, is the rule of law infallible? How can it be when it is created by humans and in particular by politicians? Indeed the idea of the rule of law is that it protects us from those politicians, requiring them to follow strict rules and procedures before denying us all manner of things from welfare payments to our liberty. That's the theory anyway. It is meant as a protection from state power, a means of ensuring that those who create and enforce the rules do so fairly.

Yet it is this kind of Napoleonic code approach to the law, the kind beloved of the left in particular and people who imagine themselves to be liberals, which can create the anomalies and frustrations that we see all around us. In theory it sounds marvellous: create a system of fixed rules, laws and regulations and then enforce them via an independent judiciary. But sometimes those rules can be too unbending, or those who interpret do so in a way that runs contrary to common sense and the prevailing mood of the age. They elevate a principle, or their idea of a principle above common sense and the needs of the nation as a whole.

The original Napoleonic Code was created because France's old system, the one overthrown by the revolution, barely existed and so one needed urgently to be created. But the prescriptive approach it takes can create its own problems.

In Britain, or more accurately in England, we have historically taken a different approach, which has evolved a system of law and created rights effectively by default going back as far as Magna Carta, the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. Our system evolved slowly and steadily through a combination of judge made common law, precedent, tradition and statute.

Younger states, particularly those forged by wars and revolutions, could not take that approach and so had to create codes and constitutions. Very often our own civil servants helped new states around the world write these documents. Our own constitution however stayed very much unwritten, something that was increasingly seen as anomalous and dangerous by many. I used to agree with them.

But increasingly, as the effects of our inclusion of the ECHR into our law have shown, I have come around to the idea that our system, in a mature and very robust democracy, is the best.The problem with the prescriptive approach is that, through trying to be fair and equal, it all too often creates anomalies and consequent unfairness.

This can go either way, it doesn't just have to be about the terrorists getting to stay in a land they hate at the expense of us all. There are plenty of people who will tell you their own tales of official recourse to the rules meaning that nothing can be done. There are plenty of people who didn't get the social housing they needed, the benefits, the urgent health treatment because of pettifogging restrictions and rules that officials cannot possibly ignore. These are the tales that tabloids survive on whilst of course comparing and contrasting the state largesse given to criminals, cheats and liars.

And I don't pretend for a moment that there is a perfect system that can iron out these problems. If we were to allow too much discretion on the part of officials then we would open the way to corruption and malpractice. But surely we have to accept that the law, when it becomes as unbending and prescriptive as it sometimes seems is clearly an ass. The case of Abu Qatada is a case in point in which a foreigner has broken the law of this country, abused our hospitality and more or less everything we stand for and yet brazenly and cheerfully uses our own liberal values against us to the endangerment of us all.

This is a consequence of the naive, if well meaning, inclusion in English law of the ECHR. This is a kind of legal version of the Euro, a ridiculous one size fits all approach to different cultures and legal systems with different needs at any one time. It was included in our law by politicians wishing to grandstand about how open and democratic they were. In so doing, just as with the EU, they handed over powers to a foreign institution.

They were essentially trying to fix something that wasn't broken. Was there a desperate need for human rights legislation in this country? The ECHR remember was created to try and prevent the excesses of the Nazis happening again. Those well meaning articles about the right to family life were meant to protect people from being carted off to concentration camps not to stop foreign born criminals from facing trial or being deported.

In practise rather than in theory, the rule of law has become the rule of lawyers, and in particular judges. This of course always happened to some extent, that is where we get common law from after all and indeed can be a force for good as any law student will tell you. One of the few cases that you always remember once those days are behind you is the famous one of Donoghue vs Stevenson, a seminal case for tort law and a fundamenal step on the road to consumer rights.

But the judges can also create all kinds of problems for themselves in a system that works by precedent. When I was preparing to go to study law, the LSE sent me a reading list. High on that list, and a book that rewards reading many times by non lawyers in particular is The Politics of the Judiciary by JAG Griffith. It is now in its fifth edition. I imagine it needs some substantial updating in the light of recent events.

And the creation of what is getting closer and closer to a written constitution has empowered the judges even more. It isn't just these cases of people who we cannot deport. It is about last year's furore over privacy and superinjunctions for the rich and powerful to protect themselves from newspapers. Yet that conflicts with freedom of speech. If the rich and powerful have done the things that the newspapers write about then you can debate about a right of privacy to protect them from intrusion. But that, in a functioning democracy, is something for parliament to decide. It is not for judges to create an ad hoc new law, effectively a private law on privacy for those who can afford the legal fees.

The fact is that there is simply no need for this kind of judicial intervention. By a combination of luck and judgement we in this country have been lucky enough to create a remarkably flexible and robust system of government that we can amend and tinker with as much as we like as the exigencies dictate. It is better for legislators to decide these things and to have to explain themselves and argue their cases than it is for the courts to try and interpret modern needs and attitudes through the prism of a 200 year old constitution, however well drafted and far sighted in its approach. That way leads to the perennial problems of gun control and Roe vs Wade.

We should have a little more faith in our system; in Parliament, in the power of the press and ever expanding media and blogosphere, in the power of all of us in this democracy to hold those in power to account. Our system is remarkably flexible and capable of adapting and changing according to the circumstances. What holds it back are our own attempts to constrain it with the needless paraphernalia of human rights legislation and written constitutions. Our government must be allowed to govern. It will not always get it right and may at times try to overreach itself. But history shows that when governments do this they are punished for it in the end as the scales of parliamentary justice and public opinion swing against them.

If Theresa May cannot get the deal she needs to satisfy the ECHR then we should simply have a vote in parliament to ignore them. The same is true of their presumptuous and impertinent demands for votes for prisoners. This is not their business. It was folly for anyone to make it their business. Parliament should assert itself and vote. Human rights campaigners will complain of course and some will allege that we are ignoring the rule of law. But where do they think those laws come from? If parliament cannot decide these things then who can?

Friday, 17 February 2012

Shall We Hang or Shoot Them, Ken?

According to The Sun, Ken Livingstone, Labour's candidate for London Mayor, at a speech this week, told his audience that we should hang a banker a week until the others improve. Now no doubt this was meant as a joke, although like all jokes it has to have an element of truth to it - we all know how much Labour like blaming bankers for every ill that afflicts society, it's so much easier than some mea culpa.

But last year, when Jeremy Clarkson made a similar joke about striking public sector workers, the left erupted in fury and demanded he be sacked. Indeed Forrest did the same, despite having not seen the offending item. He just saw a bandwagon and jumped on it. Thus far there has been silence surrounding Ken's comments which, when added to his other remarks about the Tories being 'riddled' with homosexuals suggest that Ken is getting a bit desperate as May's election gets closer, albeit not as desperate as the party that selected him.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

So, Who's In The Driving Seat?

Labour's Complacent Hypocrisy

Complacency is the word Labour have started using lately in their responses to more or less all of the travails of the government. Forrest uses it at most PMQs and yesterday, in the absence of that opportunity, came out of the house (he is working from home this week apparently) to use it in response to the latest unemployment figures.

Now say what you like about this government but complacency is not really something you can accuse them of. If anything they are being a little too brave at times as the furore over the NHS and what it might do to Tory electoral chances reveals. They are being brave on schools and on welfare, trying to push through reforms that are supported by the public but create so much hand wringing in Guardian readers that they resemble 19th century laundry workers. Sure there have been U turns aplenty and a worrying tendency to talk tough before capitulating, not to mention a lack of courage when it comes to very necessary tax cuts but even that cannot be characterised as complacency.

The party that is looking increasingly complacent is in fact Forrest's as it retreats into its comfort zone, what David Miliband called Reassurance Labour just a couple of weeks ago. Instead of well thought out policies they have soundbites, opportunistic opposition for its own sake and the kind of meaningless gesture politics we thought they had abandoned after Blair and Brown.

Most of all this can be seen with their economic policy and their protestations about everything from growth to unemployment. This week we had the news that Britain is at risk of having its credit status downgraded from AAA, a fate that has already befallen France and the U.S who seem to be getting by perfectly well.

Aha! said Labour, this proves that we have been right all along. Yet it does nothing of the sort, quite the opposite in fact. What Moody's was saying was that the current problems in the Eurozone and our consequent slow growth mean that our still expanding debt pile and stubborn deficit are going to get bigger and come down slower respectively. We already knew this. George Osborne told us in November. But this should give no succour to Labour. They have been telling us that the cuts are going too far and too fast and that we should be spending more, despite the fact that the national debt and with it the interest we pay has double in just 5 years. Thus we would not be in negative watch with the ratings agencies were :abour in charge, we would by now have had our rating cut. 

The reason that Labour persist with this demonstrably ridiculous policy of facing both ways on cuts and spending is that they are breathtakingly complacent for fear of having to abandon so many of the beliefs which they hold so dear. Instead of accepting that the world and public opinion has changed, that the great Brown spending binge demonstrated the folly of an ever expanding state, they want to keep the spending taps open and claim that this will rescue us all from oblivion by creating jobs and growth. It is the complacency of unbending dogma over reality. Forrest came out to bemoan the unemployment figures and his solution? Tax bankers of course. It would be funny if it were not so tragic. 

Ultimately this complacency means that they ignore the opinions of the British people. They seem to think that we are too stupid to see through their shallow opportunism and lack of coherence. All that they need to do they think is oppose anything and everything, talk about nasty bankers and their friends the Tories, make petty accusations about creeping privatisation in everything from schools to hospitals and they will win the next election by default. Because it would seem that the opinion polls are something they can be complacent about too.

Dave Heads North

It is, apparently, conventional wisdom that Alex Salmond has the upper hand at today's meeting with David Cameron because Dave has gone north to see him. Nonsense. Cameron is the prime minister of the whole of the UK at least for now and is clearly more mature and secure in his position than the ever chippy Mr Salmond who will stoop to more or less any gimmick or gesture rather than engage on the real issues. Thus Cameron has gone north to try and sort things out. What were they supposed to do, meet in Rejkjavik?

That the SNP are spinning that this means that they are setting the agenda just shows how shallow they are, although we already know this given their various arguments for independence and insistence that any referendum should be held close to the anniversary of Bannockburn. Like the Labour Party, they really don't think much of the intelligence of the people they seek to lead.

Ultimately, given that they are insisting on that 30 month lead in to a referendum, Salmond and his party are going to have to leave behind these process issues and get on to the substance. That is why it is sensible for Cameron to go to Edinburgh and do what needs to be done because the more the detail of a break up of the UK is examined the less sense it makes for everyone.

Salmond can have his referendum in 2014 if he really wants it, although why he wants to wait that long seems odd if anything other than cheap sentimental populism is the reasoning. But Cameron must insist, as I argued here, that it is not up to Salmond or even the people of Scotland whether or not they get the so called Devo max option instead of full independence. That would have an impact on the whole country and we should all have a say. The people of England in particular would most likely conclude that an independent Scotland would be preferable to one that picks and chooses which parts of the union it wishes to subscribe to whilst benefiting from the whole package.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

PMQs - 2012 So Far

No PMQs this week as our MPs, exhausted after 5 weeks, are taking another one of their well earned breaks. So, in the event that you are missing it, or simply cannot believe that Forrest has actually performed well for each of those 5 weeks, take a look at all of them by clicking here.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Secularism Is Not Aggressive, Just Realistic

What is this militant secularism of which so many including Sayeeda Warsi speak? This idea is one that the various churches have been trying to promote for some time, including the Pope when he came to Britain in 2010.

But what is militant about people standing up for the right of those of us who do not believe to be free of the imposition of organised religion in our lives? Why is it militant for people to argue that there is no place for prayers in a council meeting? Why do religions enjoy their special privileged status? What is special about this particular form of superstition?

What Warsi is really arguing is that religion is the opiate of the masses. She believes that religion somehow creates a more moral and just society. Yet evidence suggests that morality is something that religion has hijacked and claimed as its own rather than something it has given to us. Why else do the same fundamental moral tenets exist in different and diverse societies worshipping different gods or prophets?

Britain is becoming an increasingly secular or at least post religious society. Christians in particular find this hard to accept but they cannot really explain why because that would simply reveal that they miss the influence their formerly privileged position gave them. Instead they claim that religion is a force for tolerance. Well tell that to women who want to be bishops or gay people who want to get marrried in church. It is secular society that is leading in being more tolerant and religion that seeks to prevent that tolerance whilst claiming the opposite.

And these supposedly militant secularists are standing up for their rights in a remarkably tolerant and benign way. Not for them the crusades of the religions, the inquisitions, the closed shop approach that used to make church attendance non optional until comparatively recently. Secularists are arguing in public forums, using the courts, writing books and blogs. The reason that religion is becoming marginalised is because it is losing the battle of ideas. It is becoming marginalised because it is marginal and increasingly seen as rather silly. It's just that religionists get very offended when anyone points this out and of course often much worse as the Pythons found when they made Life of Brian or as any cartoonist would find if he drew the alleged prophet Mohammad.

Ultimately, now that religions no longer have the power they once did and information about alternative ideas and philosophies is more widely available, people are voting with their feet. It is perfectly reasonable for the majority to insist that religion should be a private matter which does not impinge or impose on the rest of us. I suppose it should not come as a surprise that a Conservative reacts in the way that Warsi has. But she would be much better off staying out of it and learn the lessons of history. It is not always necessary for Conservatives to try and prevent change until finally and grudgingly accepting it when it becomes accepted by the majority.

You cannot preserve in aspic a preferred version of Britain. We are fast becoming a multi racial, multicultural society in which the old certainties seem quaint and a little absurd. This notion of religion being necessary for a more just world is an absurdity. We learn also today that Welsh is dying out as a language, despite the efforts of politicians with their dual language signs and television channels that nobody watches. This may be regrettable if you like your language without vowels or have some old fashioned notion of what it is to be Welsh, but it is just another example of a changing world. The world is moving on, as is culture. Yes religion and language are important parts of what made this country what it is, but what has been more important is that we have embraced and encouraged change. That people now no longer need the old illusory certainties of religion is just a further example of modern and evolving Britain in the 21st century. I for one am glad of it.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Last Rites For A Dying Greece

Lucas Papademos, the Greek prime minister, and a man who might as well have the word embattled added to his name by deed poll, has today said the following:

"Vandalism and destruction have no place in a democracy and will not be tolerated. I call on the public to show calm. At these crucial times, we do not have the luxury of this type of protest. I think everyone is aware of how serious the situation is."

Really, Mr Papademos? Do you have any sense of how serious your situation really is? You are pushing through devastating austerity measures which will make the plight of your country ever worse and ensure that those who can will leave or send their money and assets abroad. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Greek money is flowing into the London property market. Meanwhile those that can't escape are plunged into ever greater poverty and despair. And for what? For the sake of pride? For the sake of European solidarity at the expense of your own people?

Let's be honest, in many ways the plight of the Greeks has been brought upon themselves. They lived very well for too long in a fool's paradise of borrowed money and now want to keep living the same way despite their collective bankruptcy, presumably paid for by someone else since they prefer not to pay any taxes.

But borrowing ever more money in the form of bailouts and slashing at spending in this way is like pumping blood into a dying patient before sewing up his wounds. Worse, they are actually still cutting bits out and wondering why they keep needing more blood. This isn't austerity, it is sadism - a punishment from Brussels for Greece's endangerment of the sacred project.

And this is not democracy we are seeing, this is the abandonment of it. This is the political class bending to the will of foreign powers who might as well be threatening them with invasion and permanent servitude. The alternative is much worse, they tell their people. Their people don't believe them. They are responding with violence because they are being ignored.

The danger now is that this anger will come out in new and even more worrying ways. On Friday I agreed with many that this latest package seemed designed to push the Greeks too far and make them default and thus leave the Euro. But it could be worse. Modern Greece is actually a very young democracy with a history of military intervention. Who would bet against that happening now, or an extremist group taking power because of popular disgust with conventional politics? Still, at least if that happened the EU leadership could expel Greece altogether blaming, probably without irony, their lack of democracy.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Whitney Houston: 1963 to 2012

We have become accustomed by now to the roll call of waste and tragedy that accompanies the world of popular music. But that doesn't make it any less sad when one of the more refulgent stars of this meretricious firmament falls.

Whitney Houston has died overnight. She was just 48. Perhaps we are leaping to conclusions in blaming her death on the overindulgence for which she was latterly so infamous. But however she died it remains a waste of a life and a rare talent, for the lifestyle had already taken its toll on her gift.

Whitney Houston was one of the brightest stars of the 1980s, back in the days when pop stars still had two names or the few who didn't, like Madonna, had to use such devices and constant reinvention to generate the buzz around them. Whitney had no need of such tactics. She had the looks and that astonishing voice. She was like the Rihanna of her time, with a bit of Adele thrown in to the mix.

The Grammy's, which she had gone to LA to attend, will be paying her a tribute tonight. Those of us who grew up with her, danced along to her songs and lusted after her will shed a tear and and hope against experience that those who follow her will learn the lessons of her too short life.

Here are some of my favourites:

Friday, 10 February 2012

Greeks: Beware EU Leaders Bearing Gifts

According to Jeremy Warner in The Telegraph, the only way of interpreting the EU's latest demands of the Greeks for further cuts and austerity is that they are trying to push them out of the Euro. He has a point. But should these Greeks look this gift horse in the mouth or seize this opportunity to get the hell out and pin the blame on the unreasonable demands of the austere and unbending Germans?

Apparently the Greek islands are enjoying something of a boom at the moment as tourists head there expecting cheap and cheerful holidays. Of course when they get there they find that this is not really the case. This at least proves that it is not just Europe's leaders who don't understand the economics of the Euro. Greece will not be cheap so long as it sells its goods in Euros. If it were to default on its debt and go back to the Drachma it would suddenly be cheap and the tourists and bargain hunters would come flooding in. Sure it would have credit problems for a time and there would still be a need for people to pay their taxes as borrowing would be impossible or impossibly expensive but that would be no bad thing. Greece might once again be able to earn a living and pay its way.

There is a strong likelihood now that Europe's leaders are ready to give up on their most troubled peripheral economy and do what so many of us have been urging for months. The only reason they hesitate is that old fear of contagion. But Greece is a special case. There is no obvious way it can grow its way out of trouble whilst still in the stifling embrace of the currency it should never have been allowed to join.

The protesters on the streets of Athens are right, these are cuts too far, although how they will enjoy the reality of being on their own is of course something that remains to be seen. But that is why Greece is such a special basket case. It has shown that it is close to being ungovernable. It must be forced to stand on its own two feet and given a helping hand not by more bailouts but by devaluing and accepting its impoverished status.

The chances are that this crisis can be contained and that it will not spread to the likes of Portugal or Ireland, which have shown that they are ready to take the bitter medicine being doled out to them. It is time for EU leaders to change tactics. The bailouts are not working, merely postponing the inevitable.

Lansley's Critics Are Wrong

Big headlines today because Conservative Home's Tim Montgomerie has joined the attack on Andrew Lansley's NHS bill. He says that he has the support of two unnamed Cabinet ministers. Yet what exactly are they attacking? It is widely recognised, particularly in the Conservative Party but generally across the political spectrum unless you are a vested interest defending the status quo, that the NHS must be reformed. It cannot carry on as it is.

The critique today is not of the reforms themselves, which few of us really understand because few of us understand the bizarre way the NHS is managed today. What Montgomerie is arguing is that the NHS is a political risk too far and should be left untouched because it risks Conservative chances at forthcoming elections. It is that kind of attitude which has allowed the system to grow into what it is today and which, as we have all experienced, all too often fails in the basics let alone at matching the best practice around the world. Our politicians all too often kid themselves that the NHS is admired and envied around the world. It isn't. It is a case study in how not to provide state healthcare via a centralised system. This bill is an attempt to create localism and to make it more responsive away from the dead hand of the state.

The government should be admired for its willingness to take on this reform as it simultaneously tries to do the same for welfare and education. These reforms too have their critics, albeit mostly again from vested interests. The NHS needs to improve productivity and needs to be more responsive to local needs. That is the aim of the Lansley reforms. He is a man who knows his subject and spent years developing these policies. Whilst he clearly is wanting in terms of political finesse and charisma he makes up for it in in depth of knowledge.

The NHS has suffered for years from constant tinkering. It enjoyed a huge increase in funding under Labour and yet is still struggling to match the best in the world. That this government is willing to take this on is something to be admired not criticised. The fact that it may be electorally inconvenient has for too long been a consideration that has held the service back and prevented it from being what it ought to be.