Saturday, 31 January 2009

Echoes From The Past

With impeccable timing, the BBC today started a re-run of the superb 1970s series The World At War. This is the definitive television history of the second world war. It may now be 36 years old, but it has not lost any of its authority in that time. Indeed it may have gained some.

It was of course helped by the fact that it was made when so many eye witnesses to our history were still alive. They were featured extensively and brought it to life. But it was a hugely ambitious project. We will not see its like again. With music by Carl Davis and narration by Laurence Olivier, it was intelligent and unencumbered by the dumbing down modern producers think necessary. It just told its story. It did it simply and clearly and left a lasting impression on all who saw it. I have watched it half a dozen times now and it still holds me enthralled.

It was made by Thames Television, then part of the ITV network. It is unimaginable that such a series would be attempted by them today. Even the BBC would think twice.

And the timing is, as I say, impeccable. Our current economic difficulties keep being compared with the 1930s. Things are of course very different now but it is always best to remember history or else we will be doomed to repeat it.

Unrest is growing around the world. Here in Britain we have had strikes about foreign workers, although thankfully they have been peaceful. Elsewhere in Europe, riots have broken out. Dissent is even growing in Russia where today thousands have marched and demanded that Vladimir Putin stand down. I predicted such things on this blog just four weeks ago, although it remains to be seen if the rest of my prediction about Russia comes true. Thus far it is looking on the money as the authorities are reacting with their usual efficient brutality.

These are dangerous times. All governments know that. Even if they are newly elected and with huge public support like President Obama they will be very aware that there is only so much they can do in the face of this recession amidst circumstances that are, whatever they say, outside their control. Gordon Brown today admitted that he and others cannot look at historic parallels for this crisis because it is unprecedented. He still claims however to be doing 'what is right' to get us out. The question is, how does he know?

But we can take some lessons from history. We can learn the lessons not to go down the protectionist route. We can hopefully remember not to turn against one another and seek scapegoats for our problems. It led to disaster in the 1930s just as it would do now if repeated.

Everyone should watch The World At War because it is a superb piece of television. But it also teaches us lessons which still resonate to this day.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Hand or Fist?

Last week, at his inauguration, President Obama offered a tentative olive branch to those nations whom his predecessor had regarded as beyond the pale. Obama would, he said, reach out the hand of friendship if they were prepared to unclench their fists.

Today, one of them, North Korea, has a fist which remains firmly clenched and is being waved threateningly at its southern neighbour. In part this is because of the new and more hardline approach taken by President Lee Myung-bak since he took office. But it may have more to do with a more distant and even newer presidential incumbent across the Pacific from this divided peninsula.

This is classic Kim Jong-Il. It is what he does. The south has cut back on the aid the north relies on and so now Kim is responding in the only way he knows: bluster and threats and predictions of war.

A South Korean presidential official has responded with commendable sang froid: "Our position," he said, "is there is no need to react sensitively or get happy or sad over every single statement issued by the North with some political motive".

It will be interesting to see how the American administration reacts. Any student of recent history might reasonably conclude that such antics would be best ignored in the same spirit as that South Korean presidential spokesman. Our own reasonableness and desire to prevent violence and human suffering can all too often be used against us by regimes like Kim's. We are seeing it this week in Zimbabwe as Tsvangirai has blinked first and agreed to become Prime Minister out of a natural desire to try and heal his nation's wounds. The stakes are even higher on the Korean peninsula.

We knew that Obama would be tested early on. Iran has been sending out conflicting signals and now North Korea is adopting its traditional and wearyingly belligerent stance. This is not, I would suggest, a time for the new president to reach out that friendly hand. Lofty disdain would be more appropriate.

Government by Soundbite

Gordon Brown is today in Davos lecturing the world about the dangers of protectionism and what he calls de-globalisation. What he says is quite right. One of the reasons the depression of the 1930s was so bad was that countries adopted a beggar thy neighbour approach, erected tariffs and other trade barriers and the world economy slumped. There are already signs that such behaviour could be repeated now. Governments under pressure are resorting to ill advised soundbites about protecting their own economies and jobs. There is a reference to such protectionism in the giant stimulus package Barack Obama is presenting to Congress, a reference that has already attracted concern on this side of the Atlantic.

Typically, however, another of Gordon Brown's soundbites is today coming back to haunt him just as he lectures others about de-globalisation. Two years ago, when the economy was still booming, he referred in a speech to British jobs for British workers. It was meaningless at the time and remains so now.

As part of the EU, Britain cannot prevent workers from other EU countries coming here to work. It even chose, unlike other EU members, not to erect controls against workers from new accession countries such as Poland from coming here to work. It could have done so just as Germany and France and other countries did. Many argued it should have done so, after all the economies of eastern Europe will take a long time to bring up to western European levels. A time of adjustment was needed as many of us argued.

But the British government thought it knew best. On day one it allowed a kind of big bang approach to eastern European integration. The result was hundreds of thousands of Poles coming to the UK attracted by our higher wages and better standard of living. Who could blame them? But this disproportionately affected indigenous lower paid workers, forced down their wages and made employment harder to find. It was a classic case of muddled thinking.

Now we are in a recession. Ironically many Poles and other eastern Europeans have returned home because jobs have dried up and the Pound has slumped. Yet today, all over the country, wildcat strikes are spreading as workers stage impromptu protests about foreign workers "stealing our jobs". It was prompted by a contract being awarded to an Italian company to build a new facility in an oil refinery in Lincolnshire. The company has chosen to import Italian and Portuguese workers rather than use locals. Italians and Portuguese are perfectly entitled to work here just as we can go to either of those countries. But we are in a recession. Times and tolerance have changed.

It is not entirely clear what these British workers are protesting about. They are in work, albeit on short term contracts, and have walked out in protest because other locals are being denied work. Others around the country have walked out in sympathy. What do they expect to achieve? Nobody has been made redundant because of these foreign workers. Nobody protesting is out of work. Perhaps these workers decided to take a leaf out of the book of our continental neighbours and protest French style.

This is a classic case of rhetoric coming back to bite our leaders. The unions and Labour are stuck in a difficult and untenable position here. Both believe in the free movement of workers. Labour has presided over a huge increase in immigration into Britain. Unfortunately for them, now that the good times are over, this is leading to resentment amongst the people who are always worst affected, namely the working class. British jobs for British workers was always a nonsense. It meant nothing at the time but now it is being painted on banners and held up by the strikers in an unpleasant echo of our less tolerant past.

This is the danger the world faces now. Brown is right to warn against it because it will only make matters worse. Yet it is being reported today that he is going to talk to industry leaders to ensure they do all they can "to support the UK economy". So he is saying one thing in Davos and something else to angry British workers who fear for their jobs.

Our political leaders cannot have it both ways. They argue that immigration has been good for Britain. It has been for the most part. Britain is a remarkably tolerant nation currently in a vicious recession and that may be changing some people's attitudes. But Brown needs to show leadership. He should stand up for what he clearly believes. His line about British jobs for British workers was nonsense and he knew it. His government policy has been to increase access for foreign workers. In addition to EU access he has also increased work permits for non EU workers. Is he now changing that policy? Is he saying it was wrong?

There is clearly a case under present circumstances for restricting work permits for non EU workers as jobs dry up. That is simple common sense if there are fewer jobs around. But what is happening in Lincolnshire does not fall into that category. Brown needs to say so and say so now rather than try to avoid the question in his usual way. Show some leadership, Mr Brown. You're supposed to be Prime Minister.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Terpsichorean Travel


I've often thought that the world would be a much better place if only it were more like a musical. This advert I think proves the point. Presumably it was inspired by that scene in The Fisher King in which commuters start dancing in Grand Central Station. I love it.

Splashing Trillions

President Obama's flurry of activity is continuing and may even be gaining pace now that he is half way to getting his economic stimulus package through. Note that it is called an economic stimulus package rather than a fiscal stimulus. This is because less than half of the vast amount of money being proposed will come in the form of tax cuts.

I have a certain sympathy with those who have criticised this package. The best and quickest way to alleviate and end this recession is by giving people money directly in their pockets at least in theory. This was why the British government chose, in their cack handed way, to cut VAT. In their case it was a tiny sum of money delivered in a way that was worse than useless. The Obama plan is bigger and bolder but it is only 275 billion out of the total. It's a lot of money but is it enough? The Bush government tried handing out tax cuts last year and the recession still arrived.

Most of the rest of the package amounts to spending on various cherished Democrat projects. These may be perfectly worthy and socially desirable, but are they going to help do what the package is supposed to do, namely drag America out of the economic mire? It seems doubtful.

Helping workers hit by the recession? Fair enough. Investing in modernising roads and other infrastructure is fine too, although it will not create jobs quickly. But the rest of the schemes are all about lots of high rhetoric and lofty ideals which, though perfectly admirable as political aspirations, are not going to help ordinary people get jobs any time soon.

As this recession gets worse and people lose their jobs in increasing numbers, politicians feel under pressure to act. This pressure is especially acute in Obama's case because it is a major reason for his being elected. Perhaps it also explains the size of this package. A man in his political honeymoon period cannot afford to disappoint so early.

But the size of the package is what is worrying about it. It is huge. It is more debt piled on debt. Added to the Fed's quantitative easing it risks unleashing inflation in the near future. That would lead to interest rates having to rise. That could crush a recovery just as it's getting underway as defaults and insolvencies rise again and bank balance sheets come under renewed pressure. That is a recipe for more boom and bust. That is how the cycle begins.

We are facing the same dangers in Britain despite the fact that our government cannot afford to splurge the cash as in America. But then we have a currency that is already being hit. The government is already pencilling in eye watering levels of debt. Some of that cannot be avoided as recessions inevitably lead to more government spending. But great care is needed. The greater danger is that by being hyperactive now governments around the world are pencilling in more than debt, they are pencilling in a destructive cycle which we will struggle to end.

There is no magical cure to what we are experiencing at present. Much of what is happening is unprecedented. The response has been ad hoc and too often knee jerk. Gordon Brown is fond of accusing the opposition of advocating that he 'do nothing'. But sometimes that is the best choice. Governments cannot control economies. At best they can influence them or maybe cushion their worst effects. There is an understandable desire to prevent something catastrophic happening, but the risk is that their hyperactivity is making that outcome more likely.

Still No Mea Culpa

You would think that a man who is as intelligent as Gordon Brown is alleged to be would by now have realised that some of the lines he repeats ad nauseum instead of answering questions might come back to haunt him. One that did just that today was that Britain 'is well placed' to get through our current economic travails. Not so said the IMF. Britain will suffer a worse recession than any other leading developed economy.

So you see, not only did Brown not abolish boom and bust as he once claimed, his policies have actually left Britain more vulnerable to the recession he keeps refusing to take any blame for. Whilst it is of course true that this is a recession affecting the whole world, Britain is in a worse position than all comparable states. The one thing the Prime Minister can take credit for is that he kept us out of the Euro. Had he not we would have been in even worse trouble now, unable to set our own interest rates and unable to allow our floating currency to take some of the strain as it is now doing.

Brown is back to the kind of form he was in before he had his bounce. He is the same grim, dour automaton who parrots the same lines, the same non answers, the same soundbites. Labour MPs and even ministers must be getting a feeling of deja vu. He is the same hapless figure we saw last summer when people were plotting against him. He is dropping like a stone in the polls and seems incapable of changing his tune.

What is worse for him is that, though he claims to be doing all of the right things to get us out of this mess his hands are tied because of his past profligacy. The package announced yesterday to help the car industry is a case in point. It was tiny. It was close to useless. Most of it is money a long way down the line or that isn't even in the gift of our government but coming from Europe. Why? Because the government cannot afford to do more. They won't tell us that but it is the plain truth. As Barack Obama fights to get his mega package through Congress, Brown can only watch on in envy. Britain is not well placed.

Brown is in denial about all of this. It seems to be part of his make-up. We learned this week that he even gets upset about cartoonists portraying him as fat. Presumably he never looks in the mirror in the same way he doesn't read our economic ledgers properly for fear of what they might tell him.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies today published a report which will have made grim reading for Brown, although he of course will never admit it. It essentially said that we are going to have to raise taxes even more than has already been admitted and squeeze spending even tighter than Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives did in the early 80s.

Whoever forms the next government is going to have some tough decisions to take. Happily for them they will have a ready made scape goat in our current Prime Minister assuming that he does not win the chance to clear up his own mess. That will be his enduring legacy. Given his track record though he will deny culpability long after he has left Downing Street and probably until the day he dies.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Bad Taste A Mile High

You have to hand it to Richard Branson, he knows how to do good PR. In the wake of a widely circulated and very funny letter of complaint from a passenger who had flown from Mumbai to Heathrow concerning the inedible goo he had been served during the flight, Branson has turned this to his advantage by inviting the complainant to come and help select the food that will in future be served on Virgin flights. Very clever.

I write a good letter myself. I have in my time complained to my local council, my bank, my MP, my telephone company and a former employer. All reaped results. But this letter to Branson has won so much admiration because it deployed humour to deadly effect. It was helped by that most wonderful modern invention the camera phone which enabled the passenger in question to photograph the goo and send it to the bearded one. It was, as the letter pointed out, difficult to tell at first sight which was the main course and which the dessert.

It's a long way from Mumbai to London and this noisome concoction did not help pass the time or quell the hunger pangs. Indeed it may have necessitated an urgent trip to one of those horrible on board lavatories which I try to avoid at all costs, regardless of the length of the flight.

You can read the letter here

But Virgin, to their credit, have responded with admirable good humour and civility. Others might have written back and wondered why the passenger had switched on his phone during a flight and made all kinds of threats pertaining to aviation regulations.

The customer is always right seems genuinely to be the Virgin motto. In this case he had better be. If I choose to fly with Virgin to New York and I get bad food I shall know who to blame.

Credit Crunched

We are all feeling this recession in our own individual ways. Some of course may benefit from it. If one is in work and earning money then the lower prices on things from furniture and cars to flights and holidays is an opportunity to be grasped.

I should be one of these people. I am working. Yet I am somehow turning out to be a victim because people are dragging their feet over paying me. I am not alone in this I know. The self employed contractor and freelancer often feels the brunt of economic slowdown most acutely.

But I make this plea to all of those (you know who you are) who owe me money and indeed to any others who wish to offer me work. Please be expeditious. Please get on with it. You're buggering up my love life.

3000 miles away the most beautiful woman in the world is waiting for me. She is there and I'm not. This is frustrating and irritating. I am now back to reasonable fitness. I am now slim and feeling good. It's my finances that are in need of a workout now and through no fault of my own.

Valentine's Day is coming. I want to be there taking the woman I love for meals. I want to buy her flowers and chocolates. I want to take her to nice places. I want to bring her home with me and make love to her night after night in our cosy home. It's not much to ask is it?

Two Steps Back

According to the Daily Telegraph, Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC is set to join the government of Robert Mugabe. This is in a way understandable whilst remaining the wrong decision. Tsvangirai must be under enormous pressure. The SADC leaders, to their eternal shame, instead of pressuring Mugabe, are piling it on the MDC, probably because they consider that Tsvangirai will be more likely to be reasonable and back down. This is true but it starkly illustrates the problem and that is Mugabe.

People are dying in their thousands in Zimbabwe. No doubt Morgan Tsvangirai feels that he must enter government to try to alleviate their suffering. But by doing so he will merely entrench this corrupt and murderous regime in power. If the international community is foolish enough to send aid money it will be used by the regime and little of it will get to where it is needed. It will buy guns and luxury cars, it will buy off cronies and pay the Zanu-PF bully boys. It will prop up Mugabe for a while longer until the next crisis comes along in this broken and bankrupt country that he has ruined.

No doubt Tsvangirai feels isolated and helpless as the SADC countries cajole and persuade him instead of doing the same to this shameless dictator. Mugabe has nothing to lose. He will cling on for as long as he is allowed to. He doesn't care who dies in the meantime. This deal plays into his hands once more and the so called leaders of south Africa are colluding in this despotic regime's crimes.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

New Approach, Old Problems

One week on from his inauguration and Barack Obama cannot be accused of treading water while he takes in his new surroundings. He has taken a number of initial steps which, on the face of things, seem to be positive and brave. His first calls to foreign leaders were to the middle east and it would seem he intends to try and make a positive impact there straight away. He has begun the tough negotiations which should lead to a huge fiscal stimulus package. It's a package which makes the actions of our own government here in Britain look puny and pathetic.

Tonight, according to The Times, he is also intent on getting something done about Robert Mugabe and the tragedy he has created in Zimbabwe. The intention is apparently to ramp up the diplomatic pressure through the UN by persuading China and Russia to back off. It will require careful and patient diplomacy but now is the time, when Obama has plenty of political capital and both China and Russia have their own internal problems, for deals to be done.

Southern African nations have shown that they are incapable of resolving this themselves. For reasons best known to themselves they will not apply sufficient pressure on Mugabe despite his egregious crimes. Even now they are pressuring Morgan Tsvangirai to accept a deal which will just prop up Mugabe and his regime for a while longer. He and the MDC are right to say no. They should have no part of a deal with Mugabe who cannot be trusted.

It will not take much to remove Mugabe. Concerted pressure and smart diplomacy will finish him off if only China and Russia can be persuaded to step aside and at least abstain in the UN Security Council. Best of all, if Obama takes the lead in this, Mugabe cannot trot out his usual diatribes about colonialists and racists.

This ought to be Africa's problem to sort out. Africa's leaders have failed. They should be ashamed of themselves. If Barack Obama can sort this out then the people of Kenya, who danced and cheered this time last week as they saw a man whose family hails from their country become the most powerful in the world, will have concrete reasons to feel proud of one of their own. Even if he ultimately fails, you can't fault his willingness to try.

Change and Adapt

What is it with environmentalists? They seem to be against everything. On the face of it, in a world concerned by global warming, or climate change as it has recently become known, you would have thought that the sandal wearers would be all for a scheme that would generate vast amounts of electricity with zero emissions, namely a tidal barrage across the Severn Estuary. But no. The beardies think that this will damage the environment too and deprive a few thousand birds of somewhere to wade. You can't please some people.

I always thought that the great advantage of being a bird is that they can just fly somewhere else. They go where the food is or where the wading is better. They are the most versatile of all animals thanks to those wings. That's why inland areas miles from the sea now have huge populations of seagulls. That's a case of evolution happening before our very eyes. When climates or landscapes change nature adapts. They would do so if someone built a barrage across the Severn. Wading won't stop it will just change and adapt.

Surely this is a good idea? Even if, like me, you consider all of this global warming stuff to be hyperbole and nonsense, it is no bad idea to develop new technologies to make us less reliant on fossil fuels. Wind power, tidal power, nuclear power, experiments into nuclear fusion - I have no problem with any of them. As Russia's behaviour has proven this cold and frosty winter, it is a good idea for us to diversify away from our traditional reliance on foreign energy providers now that our own stocks of oil and gas are starting to run out.

Admittedly the tidal barrage in the Severn will be expensive but it is a remarkable engineering challenge. It is something Britain ought to be doing - developing a new technology for a new age. It might be something we could sell to the rest of the world. There is also the problem of course that the tides will not always coincide with peak demand for electricity in Britain. Yet the tides are predictable. We will know precisely when they will happen and when we will get that twice daily burst of free energy. It will mean we will be able to plan accordingly and switch off a few fuel burning power stations. You would think the greenies would be pleased.

But this is symptomatic of the way the tree huggers think. The whole climate change issue is characterised by this kind of confusion. For instance we keep being told, not least by Newsnight's Susan Watts, that we have just a few years to take action before damage to our planet is irreversible. Yet today the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that, even if we halted all human carbon emissions immediately, it would take a thousand years for all of that carbon to be removed from the atmosphere.

This is what some of us have been saying all along. Even if it is human CO2 which is changing the climate, which is debatable; even if we ignore natural emissions of CO2 and other gases which far outweigh human emissions; even if we cut our emissions by the drastic numbers foolish politicians are proposing; even if we do all of these things then, by their own arguments, it won't make a blind bit of difference.

If we accept their science, ignore all of the other factors which explain climate change, ignore the fact that it hasn't been doing what it is supposed to be doing for the last decade, thus rendering their predictions doubtful or nonsensical and radically change our lifestyles immediately, then precisely nothing will happen. According to their own arguments, the change is already baked in to the system. According to their own arguments change is irreversible and we will just have to adapt to it.

What people tend to forget is that climate has changed throughout our planet's history long before we started lighting fires, driving cars and building power stations. It is one of its certainties. It is a driver of evolution. It is the reason we are here.

Just as birds can fly off somewhere else for better opportunities, humans can adapt and change too. We are the most adaptable of all the animals. We, and we alone, can be found on every continent in every climate. We can and we will adapt. Necessity is the mother of invention. If I and people like me are right then that necessity will not arise or will be nothing like as grave as we are being told by the dungaree wearers. If they are right then their proposed solutions won't work anyway.

Let's build that barrage across the Severn and lots like it. Let's develop new technologies and adapt ourselves to whatever new realities may be coming. We've always done it in the past and we will again. There really is no need to panic.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Sleaze

The peers who are alleged to have agreed to amend legislation in exchange for huge sums of cash are getting their excuses in early. The standard inquiry has of course been set up amidst the usual language of righteous indignation and demands for action. It has all the early signs of being a whitewash.

The excuse is likely to be that these lords did not actually take any money, although they appear to have agreed to do so. They claim to have acted within the rules, although one of them did say, allegedly, that rules are made to be bent. Just how far they think such bending is permissible remains to be seen. They are also claiming that the recordings have been taken out of context and that they were entrapped. Yet the fact remains, according to the story in The Sunday Times, that other peers were also approached and they declined to cooperate. It is difficult to entrap an honest man in such circumstances as others demonstrated.

It will be fascinating to see how this turns out. Is this an example of Labour sleaze, of a disintegrating government grown fat and complacent and too used to the trappings of power? It looks especially bad since these are men placed in the House of Lords, unelected and unaccountable. They cannot, under present rules, be removed except by age and infirmity or death.

Labour came to power in 97 on the back of Tory sleaze and made all kinds of promises about being accountable and whiter than white. In the still unreformed House of Lords there are many who, entirely within the rules, can turn up, do nothing and claim an untaxed daily allowance that many in this country struggle to earn in a week. Labour has created hundreds of them. If it now turns out that some are also taking thousands in payments from lobbyists to change legislation it will be a scandal bigger than anything in decades. It's symptomatic of a government in decline.

Rewriting History

For some time it has been obvious that Gordon Brown is in denial. He refuses to acknowledge the possibility that he has made any mistakes or misjudgements. He has even failed to acknowledge any Hillary Clintonesque misspeaking. He did grudgingly concede that he didn't see the recession coming but then he was on safe ground here because few so called experts did either.

Now it would seem that it could be even worse than mere denial. That is a default state of being for many politicians anyway. For some reason when one becomes a politician one becomes infallible and perfect. Mistakes are things that are made by other people. Presumably, since politicians have a habit of breeding with one another (possibly so that they have someone who is willing to listen to their excuses and speeches at home) they will eventually evolve into a completely different and infallible race separate from the rest of us, although of course they will expect the rest of us to continue to pay for their second homes and other assorted perks.

Brown has however gone further than this. Brown now seems to be living in a world in which, not only did he not see the recession coming, not only did he take certain decisions which are actively making it worse for Britain, he is now claiming that he warned the whole world about it and that the whole world should have taken regulatory action to prevent it. This is the same man who, as Chancellor, changed the regulatory structure for banks. Has he forgotten?

The man isn't in denial, he is delusional. This has nothing to do with a lack of international structures and an early warning system. This has to do with the fact that, on Brown's watch, our banks became so massive that they now dwarf the rest of the economy. It happened over the last ten years since Brown imagines he warned the world. That didn't require an international regulatory structure. It required a functioning British one. It also required a Chancellor and now a Prime Minister who has both eyes on his job rather than the next political opportunity.

We have been assuming that when Brown said he had saved the world in the House of Commons it was a slip of the tongue. But maybe he really thinks that. As he makes his claims to be doing all of the 'right' things to save our economy is it any wonder that the British people are increasingly sceptical? He has lost touch with reality.

Changing My Mind

I was wrong. I made a mistake. I have now changed my mind. Having read more about the charity appeal for aid to Gaza, having heard the BBC's Director General, Mark Thompson, explain his reasons for his decision and read the columns of people who are better informed than I am, I have come to the conclusion that my initial reaction, as outlined here, was wrong. I think the BBC is right to refuse to show this appeal.

As I wrote here when the conflict started over Christmas, it is difficult to know what to say about this situation. We have been here so often before. One has to feel every sympathy for the innocents caught up in Gaza of course. I, like many others, think that Israel's actions have been excessive and counter productive. But this is not so one sided as is being portrayed. Hamas is very adept at turning the natural sympathy people feel for human suffering into something more suspect and dangerous.

The complexities of this situation are too often underplayed. The charities who want to go riding to the rescue may ultimately be playing into the hands of the propagandists and the war mongers. They may not be too. The trouble is that it is impossible to know. The BBC is right to be wary. It is right to be careful not to take sides.

So I was wrong. Having listened to the arguments and looked at the history and the evidence I have changed my mind. You see, Mr Brown, that's how you do it.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Take A Wee Dram

It's Burns' Night tonight. Tonight, the world over, Scots get together, only four weeks after seeing in the New Year in their inimitable style, and celebrate their favourite poet whilst downing whisky and that sack of offal otherwise known as the Haggis.

Even though I am a sassenach, I have been known to indulge in this activity. Haggis is not as bad as many people think actually. It's like a big sausage in many ways. It's one of those foods, like snails and frogs legs, which sounds much worse than it actually is. Then again if you were to reduce many of our favourite foods to their constituent elements they would sound pretty revolting.

I have fond memories of eating haggis. I used to live in a village just to the east of Birmingham. At this time of year we used to go to a local pub run by friends and we used to partake of this great Celtic delicacy served with swede and liberal dashes of whisky. It became a tradition. I also think fondly of the haggis because I once managed to persuade a former girlfriend that the haggis is actually a small flightless bird which inhabits Scottish heather moors. For all I know she still thinks that that is true.

So tonight why not raise a glass to Burns, recite a bit of his poetry and take a taste of haggis if you dare. You might even enjoy it.

A Long Time In Politics

This last week has been disastrous for the Labour government, not helped by the country watching, and being entranced by, a new, vibrant and fresh administration in America. By contrast the Brown administration looks tired, clueless and in terminal decline.

To be fair some of the criticism has been a little unfair. The rescue package unveiled on Monday is perfectly reasonable and it is difficult to see any alternative, even if they have at times seemed hesitant and uncertain. But therein lies the problem. This recession is about confidence more than it is about anything else. The package was designed to restore confidence in our banks. They somehow contrived to do the opposite. Bank shares have collapsed because the markets simply do not believe that this is the cure and that nationalisation is not on the agenda.

The one thing this government used to do well was spin and presentation. They seem to have lost that knack. This is not helped of course by the glum twins who hold the two most important jobs, Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Gordon Brown's inability to acknowledge any fault and his refusal to answer questions has been noted by the press and the electorate. The next set of polls will not make happy reading.

But this last week has been disastrous on other issues too. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, made a complete arse of himself on a trip to India. Never has one man been so arrogant when he has so little to be arrogant about. He is supposed to be our diplomat in chief and yet managed to infuriate one of our chief allies by being rude and lecturing them in what is, apparently, his default manner. He also decided, shamelessly, to distance himself from policies he voted for on several occasions with regard to British policy on Iraq. He did so of course because Tony Blair and George Bush are now gone. This was his way of ingratiating himself with the new regime whilst presumably hoping that we will forget about all of those inconvenient speeches and interviews he gave saying the exact opposite.

Miliband is one of those Labour figures who is supposed to be brilliant. A future leader we have oft been told despite the fact that he is one of many who has never had a proper job and seems to have achieved very little whilst climbing the political ladder.

But it doesn't even end there for Labour's disastrous week. We had the attempt to cover up MPs expenses which has further infuriated the public.

Now today it is reported that some Labour peers have been caught out agreeing to amend legislation in return for substantial sums of money. It is bad enough that after 11 years in power the Lords remains largely unreformed, still unelected and stuffed full of cronies. Now it seems those cronies are willing to amend our laws at the behest of lobbyists who are prepared to pay them five and six figure sums.

This is a government that looks to be in terminal decline. It is scrambling for policy and looks clueless in many areas. It has even lost the ability to spin. It is more and more resembling the Major government which lost so spectacularly in 97. They even had their equivalent of the Citizens' Charter this week, the expensive and pointless NHS Constitution which is actually nothing of the sort. This is the sort of initiative that governments come up with when they have run out of ideas and are running out of steam.

Morally, financially and figuratively this is a bankrupt Prime Minister and government.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

A Convenient Deduction


One of the anomalies that we climate change sceptics (or skeptics as they prefer to call themselves on the other side of the pond) have often pointed to is that of the falling temperatures in Antarctica. This was occurring even when the rest of the planet was warming up which it has since stopped doing. (Note that Glencoe in Scotland has today suffered an avalanche. This is an area which has scarcely had any snow at all in recent years.)

Proponents of AGW found this very problematic, not that this was widely reported. If AGW was true it should be worldwide.

This week, sure enough, a 'study' was released by the University of Washington claiming that temperatures had infact been increasing for the last 50 years. This was dutifully reported by certain sections of the media including the ever credulous BBC.

Look beneath the headlines however and it is immediately clear that this study is not all it purports to be. They did not base their findings on actual measurements but on deduced measurements using satellite data. It was centred on just one part of Antarctica but the study took no account of the geography of that continent which, as any elementary school geography student knows, has a huge bearing on climate and temperatures. Furthermore the increases they claimed to have found fell well within the margin of error for these measurements rendering the deduced figures meaningless.

Essentially then, this study managed to conjure data from nowhere and came out with a result that will have been pleasing to the various environmental groups who want us all to stop doing what we are doing, stop breeding and go back to living in caves.

Suspicious? I should say so. So much of the case for AGW relies not on facts but on propaganda dressed up as facts, that famous hockey stick graph for instance and Al Gore's Inconvenient Untruths. Too many scientists, desperate for funding and publicity, go searching for 'proof' and conveniently find it, whilst little or no attention and even less funding is paid to counter theories and explanations. That is not science.

Earlier this week, in the wake of Barack Obama's inauguration, the BBC's Newsnight ran a series of films by its various editors describing the challenges that the new president will face. Inevitably Susan Watts, the supposed Science Editor, was there talking about climate change. 'Science,' she gravely intoned, 'tells us that we have only five years to do something about this before it is too late.' Does it really Ms Watts? What is this homogeneous body called 'Science'? How does it get to speak with one voice? Was it by press release or did you get to speak to it one on one? Did it give any evidence for this conclusion? When you say too late what do you mean? What will happen?

It is this kind of lazy, intellectually bankrupt journalism that we see constantly. That is why that report from the University of Washington was reported uncritically this week. That is why every new climate model prediction of doom and gloom used to make headlines, although thankfully this has stopped lately because they have all failed to explain our current cold weather.

The politics of climate change are too often ignored. It has become an industry. It supports the careers of scientists, civil servants, politicians and eco warriors. It feeds on doom and gloom whilst forcing the rest of us to pay higher taxes. Politicians get to grandstand and make elaborate promises they know they will never have to answer for because they are too far in the future. Journalists, who react sceptically to everything they are told by politicians, take everything told to them by scientists as gospel regardless of methodology and motivation. This is how this nonsense has gained so much momentum. In a world about to slip into depression it's time we called a halt to this gravy train which spouts nothing but taxpayer funded hot air.

The Beeb Makes A Boob

The BBC is a world renowned and respected organisation with a reputation for excellence across its range. It is one of the world's largest news gathering organisations and tries as far as possible to be objective and impartial in the way it reports the news although of course as an organisation based in Britain it will inevitably see things from a British perspective. It's reach and range however cannot be underestimated. The name BBC is instantly recognised. It is a brand to die for.

As a consequence of its reputation and desire to remain impartial, it is refusing this weekend to air an appeal from the Disasters Emergency Committee for Gaza, claiming that to do so would undermine that impartiality. Given recent history and given the way that the press is constantly probing this massive publicly funded organisation for mistakes and failings, it is easy to understand why they came to this decision. The press made a huge and ridiculous fuss over the Russell Brand/ Jonathan Ross affair and have tried on a few occasions since to do the same. BBC management are constantly on the defensive and as a consequence now tend to err on the side of caution. Yet they have made a mistake over this one. By trying to be strictly impartial and not favouring one side of the Gaza conflict over the other they are being overly sensitive.

This is a humanitarian disaster as well as an intractable political quagmire. But we have all seen for ourselves the appalling destruction of life and property in Gaza as a consequence of Israeli action responding to Hamas provocation and cynicism. That is not the fault of the vast majority of Gaza's citizens.

The BBC is feeling the brunt of the criticism of this decision because it is the BBC. Yet other broadcasters took the same decision. Now ITV and Channel 4 have reversed that decision and said that they will not show the appeal. The BBC should do the same. It cannot be accused of failing in its impartiality. This is not made by the BBC, it is just given airtime by the BBC. It is not choosing sides. The only side it is choosing is humanity. The BBC should reverse its decision. In doing so it will be showing wisdom and humility. It did what it did for understandable reasons especially given recent pressures. But it has been oversensitive. In this case they should show some flexibility.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Macavity Wasn't There - Honestly!

To be fair, Gordon Brown has not after all done his Macavity the Mystery Cat act and disappeared on this day of appalling economic news. He came out and did the interviews and faced the music. Except he didn't. Oh he gave interviews but as usual answers were there none. It was the usual line, the usual denials, the usual passing the blame, the usual lack of compunction. We all heard him say that he had ended boom and bust but Macavity is having none of it. Macavity is claiming he wasn't there even though we all saw him and his paw prints are all over our ruined economy.

It was once said of Brown, by someone who was ostensibly on the same side, that he is psychologically flawed. We are seeing that for ourselves right now. This dour and saturnine man who is incapable of admitting to mistakes is, he keeps telling us, making 'the right decisions'. Yet aren't we entitled to question this given that he won't admit getting anything wrong? Is his inability to admit mistakes due to pride or because he genuinely cannot see that he has done anything wrong? If the latter we should be worried.

This is all politically inept too. Just because they keep parroting the same old lines does not mean the public will be convinced. It all started in America is true to a certain extent but we all know that Britain is set to be amongst the worst affected and that is down to Brown. The 'do nothing Tories' line is still being repeated ad nauseum to no real effect. He repeats soundbites over and over again and refuses to answer questions. Does he think people won't notice?

And for all his claims to be doing everything possible to get us through this the actions never match the words. He has dithered over so many things and his ad hoc approach to this crisis is further denting confidence. He has a record of setting his face against one course of action before executing a U turn a while later. He then denies having done so. This is why bank shares are still falling. Nobody believes government denials that nationalisation is on the cards. We are reaching the point when it won't be worth listening to what our Prime Minister says because he never says anything of note.

Brown started this year with a frenzy of announcements and tours designed to make him look like the all action Prime Minister, the man for a crisis. He hoped to get a lead in the polls and then call an election asking the people to back him. Now those polls are getting worse. The public is simply not buying it. Does he have a Plan B? Or is his Macavity Act all we can look forward to for the next 16 months?

The R Word

Today will be the day when it is finally officially confirmed that Britain is in recession. We all know this of course. All of those economists and other experts who told us it wouldn't happen changed their minds months ago. The BBC and other sections of the media have stuck to calling it a mere downturn until we get the definitive two quarters of negative growth. But it's just semantics. If it looks like a recession and feels like a recession then it probably is a recession. Today we just get to dot the Is and cross the Ts.

Even the government, which tends to set its face against admitting anything until forced to, has admitted the obvious. This won't make it any easier for them today though. It's unlikely Gordon Brown will be out taking questions or making major new announcements when he knows he will be asked about the R word and reminded about his claim to have abolished boom and bust.

What makes it worse for Brown is that this is a recession like no other. He seems to have had the stuffing knocked out of him this last week now that he has had to have a second bank bailout and that has had a mixed reaction. The Pound is suffering. Bank shares are at rock bottom. There is a real danger that Britain won't be able to sell all of that debt in the market. If that happens all bets are off.

Brown knows all of this. The fear is starting to show. He is beginning to realise at last that there really is only so much that the government can do and that British options are much more limited than those the new American president is currently considering. Thanks to his own tenure as Chancellor, Brown cannot promise to create millions of new jobs. He cannot pour billions into infrastructure. He may have no choice soon but to slash public spending rather than keep pushing it up.

Brown is caught up in a maelstrom and there isn't a thing he can do about it. He has to wait and hope that it cures itself, maybe with a little help from the novice across the pond. This is the time for a novice after all. It's the time for an American president to harness the strength of the American economy and the world's leading reserve currency and to drag the world out of this mess. Where America leads little Britain will follow, notwithstanding our bankrupt Prime Minister.

One thing is for certain, my prediction of an election this year is now going to be very wide of the mark. Brown is going to hang on until the bitter end, hoping and praying for something to turn up. He will continue with that fixed smile on his face, he will continue to trot out his trite phrases and he will continue to deny all responsibility for the mess we are in. But the fear is there. Deep down he knows the game is up. Sadly for us all we must wait another 16 months for our fresh faced novice to take over. It's going to feel like much longer, not least for Gordon Brown.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Accountable

The debate over MPs expenses is rumbling on today. They are still talking about it but at least they have now abandoned attempts to exempt MPs from Freedom of Information legislation.

As an illustration of just how unashamedly brazen some MPs are about their expenses regime, one of them just appeared on the BBC Daily Politics show. Ann Cryer, the Labour MP for Keighley, does not believe that MPs should have to publish receipts for their expenditure. And remember she is not talking here about expenditure on her job as an MP, office expenses etc. She gave an example. A couple of weeks ago, apparently, she went and bought two towels and a face towel from a central London store and claimed this back on her expenses. Then she wonders why it is felt she should have to itemise this and thus justify it. Towels! Why should the British taxpayer be paying for towels?

To be fair there was an MP alongside her, Richard Shepherd, the Conservative MP for Aldridge and Brownhills, who argued the opposite, that it was a matter of principle that people receiving public funds should account for it and have to justify it.

This is what MPs are afraid of of course. They will all be feathering their own nests and getting us to pay for their towels and other such items and know that there will be uproar. The very same MPs who are so angry about bankers and their bonuses, who cry crocodile tears for people who are struggling to pay for their gas and electricity and having to choose to be cold instead, are at the same time claiming on expenses for ordinary every day items. They get their mortgages on their second homes paid for. They get them furnished on us. But now it seems they claim for every small every day item within their second homes. There was us thinking that is what salaries are for.

It isn't as if these expensive hypocrites do much for their money. They are on holiday for half of the year and when they are there they supinely nod through government legislation almost all of the time. This is supposed to be our national forum, where our representatives hold the government to account. Yet the only time they ever seem to get exercised is when the police raid their offices or when we the public get angry about how much of our money they are spending.

I hope the press publish the names of those MPs who vote for this cover up. I hope they do so again when eventually Gordon Brown has the guts to call an election. MPs should remember to whom they are ultimately accountable. The public is furious about this. The public will soon have the ultimate sanction over those who think that they should not be accountable.

Do It Again

They've done it again - this time very slowly. Apparently a few lawyers and constitutional experts had opined that, given the fluffing of the words the first time around, the oath of office and thus the presidency might not be legally valid. And so tonight, just to be on the safe side, they've done it again. I wonder if he will have to sign those documents he has already signed again too.

Lawyers, eh! I was going to become one once. I decided against. Now, ironically, the woman that I love has decided she wants to become one. Maybe it's not too late to dissuade her.

Anyway, I was under the impression that the presidency automatically passed at midday regardless of the oath. Was someone going to challenge it in court, especially since it was the Chief Justice who was responsible for the error? I would suspect not. It wasn't as if he got it that wrong. To misquote my all time favourite television sketch, he said all the right words but not necessarily in the right order. After all, we all knew what he meant.

Stop Doing Nothing

Perhaps American politics is like American television, we only get to see the good stuff and miss all of the petty chicanery and name calling that I am sure are a part of their system as much as our own. In fact I know this is a part of American politics too. We do get to see it from time to time. We do get to see the marathon that is the run up to their elections and then the long transition period as opposed to our sudden and brutal handovers which happen in a few hours.

But, after yesterday's events, it was hard not to feel a little ashamed of our system. The House of Commons of course encourages yah boo politics but that doesn't make it any easier to watch. There is the shouting and the pointing and the silly slogans.

Someone should tell Labour and in particular Gordon Brown that his constant repetition of 'the do nothing Tories' just makes him look childish. Then today we had various backbenchers, including that ridiculous class war refugee Dennis Skinner, trotting out the line 'Tory bankers'. It's pathetic. It's embarrassing. This is the 21st century, Dennis. Move on.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

What Are They Hiding?

According to The Times, certain Conservative MPs are angry with their leader, David Cameron, because he has stymied their efforts, in league with Labour MPs, to amend Freedom of Information legislation so that they don't have to publish all of their expenses receipts.

It beggars belief doesn't it.

In America, President Obama is intent upon opening up American politics even further. Their politics is already considerably more open than ours. We know a great deal more about American politicians finances, outside interests, even their health. Our MPs live in their closeted little world. They are up in arms, rightly, when the police search their offices, claiming that they are protecting their constituents rather than themselves, yet furiously resist explaining how they spend our money on themselves.

The media should publish the names of the MPs who are attempting to keep these receipts out of the public domain. They have been ordered by the High Court to publish them and we want them now. No more backsliding, no more trying to sneak blocking legislation through. What are they trying to hide? The public has a right to know and now we should be demanding full and immediate access to every piece of paper. There are, apparently, over a million receipts generated by 650 MPs over a three year period. A million! That sounds like an awful lot to hide to me.

U Turn

After the heady and thrilling exhibition of democracy we saw yesterday it is back to reality today, at least here in Britain. Our own increasingly inept government doesn't know which way to turn.

Last week, in their usual cynical way, under the cover of the announcement about Heathrow, they tried to sneak out an announcement which was effectively exempting MPs from Freedom of Information laws. A Statutory Instrument was to be laid before Parliament to enact this and by so doing defy an order from the High Court ordering MPs to publish their receipts. Fortunately there are enough Labour MPs and Peers allied to the opposition who could see how appalling this would look.

The government has today backed down. It looks as though we will see these details after all, although expect some more foot dragging until we do.

But this once more illustrates a government that has completely lost its way. Policy on this has changed over the course of a few hours. It may even have been changed on the hoof by the Prime Minister himself when he answered a question in the Commons. Margaret Beckett, the Housing minister, was on TV at the time and clearly had no idea what was going on. She tried to bluff it out for a while but, when a statement came out of Downing Street, had to admit she was entirely in the dark.

Why has this happened? Because it was a spectacularly stupid policy. MPs are being asked to show how they spend our money. They have an extremely lax expenses regime under which they claim all manner of things that the rest of us have to pay for out of our taxed income. Then they have the temerity to try to keep from us the exact details of how much they spend and on what.

They have come up with all kinds of excuses as to why this shouldn't happen. First was the fact that it was costing a lot to administer scanning all of those receipts. Coming from a government that has increased the size of the public sector hugely these last 11 years this is ridiculous. The few hundred thousand pounds spent on making our MPs more accountable would, for once, be money well spent.

Then they wheel out the 'security implications' excuse. This has become the default response now for keeping under wraps that which they don't want revealed. This is laughable too. American Senators, including the now President Obama, have to outline all of their income, their debts and expenditure not just from the public purse but from other activities. This is a good and sensible measure. It shows any conflicts of interest. All that we are asking our MPs for, at least for now, is an account of how they spend public money on their so called expenses.

The suspicion is that the expenses issue is going to be embarrassing. In a recession the public will be furious at this abuse of the public purse when the rest of us are having to tighten our belts. I'm still waiting to be paid three weeks after I should have been for work already done. Freelancers such as myself look on with incredulity at MPs who supplement a salary with other work and then charge the taxpayer for all manner of things including furniture and satellite television subscriptions and then argue that they shouldn't have to explain themselves.

Most amazing though is that this government thought it should collude in this cover up. What are they thinking? People are losing their jobs and their homes. When they do they are on a benefit regime on which it is almost impossible to live and facing a long term of unemployment because there are no jobs around. Those who are fortunate to still be in jobs are also being squeezed. The government is aggressively chasing taxpayers for every penny they can get. They are increasing those taxes to pay for their spendthrift decade in power. That they can then try to exempt themselves from showing how they spend our money is breathtaking. Are such people fit to govern?

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

President Obama

So, America has a new president and, after the tears of joy and the celebrations, he must get down to business. He faces difficulties greater than anything since Roosevelt.

And he is human. He tripped up on his vows and had to be prompted on his lines. It was actually a rather nice moment. With his wife standing by him and smiling broadly, this supremely confident man made a slight mistake, acknowledged it with a smile, asked, with his eyes, for the assistance of the Chief Justice and seconds later was president.

But then came the soaring rhetoric we have come to know. He is a superb speaker. The last time I listened to a speech of his was his acceptance speech in August. At the time I was lying flat on my back in hospital and needed something to pass the time because it hurt too much to sleep. I was impressed then and was impressed again today.

This speech was a little like a state of the union speech, although describing a union that is flawed and in need of repair after the last incumbent. It ticked all of the boxes about the current issues, the economy being the most obvious and pressing. There was a nod to the historical nature of the occasion but he didn't dwell on it. He was implicitly saying that he was to be a president for everyone, that a new era had dawned.

Obama, for all that he was painted as a big government, semi socialist kind of politician gives the impression that he is actually a pragmatist. He is prepared to take each issue on its merits, to judge them according to the facts and evidence and act accordingly. That's the hope anyway.

It was not a long speech. But in a general speech it set the tone in these challenging times. The specifics will come tomorrow. For now he was harnessing the mood and preparing us for hard days ahead. There will be many of those.

The Meaning of Democracy

If you want to know what democracy means, well we just saw it. The outgoing president and first lady, accompanied by the new president and first lady go to Marine One and see them off. No fuss, just a friendly handover of power, a smile, some hugs and then off they fly into history.

Contrast that with Russia where Putin has managed to inveigle his way into the prime ministers job and will resume the presidency once an interval has dealt with constitutional niceties. Contrast that with China where power is handed from one old bureaucrat to the next without bothering to consult anyone. Contrast that with Zimbabwe where they have elections but, if the president doesn't like the result, he bullies and beats everyone until they let him stay.

Finally, for all that George Bush has had his faults as a president, he has handled himself with great grace and dignity these last few weeks. He has facilitated the transition so that Obama can take office and immediately confront the problems he now faces. Bush should be applauded for this and given credit for it.

The Wrong Side of History

I wonder if Gordon Brown and his government are watching the inauguration. They may be a little busy of course. But if they are they may be wishing that they could bottle some of this enthusiasm for Barack Obama. Of course to import it they would now have to pay a higher price because the Pound is plummeting against the Dollar and many other currencies. They are in deep and worsening trouble. The currency markets are giving their verdict.

The sight of a new President will be in some ways their best hope but in other ways their enduring nightmare. It will represent hope because the optimism surrounding the new president may be what the American economy needs, along with a vast stimulus package, to drag America out of the recession. Where America leads then the rest will follow.

But of course the nightmare is that America has voted for change. America has voted for a younger and charismatic man. America voted enthusiastically to be rid of the old discredited regime and it is now watching enraptured as the new man takes charge. Given the state of the polls and the state of the economy, Gordon Brown may well be imagining this fate for himself. And given the state of the economy and the falling Pound, the collapsing banks and gloom everywhere, he may be imagining that history could be even less kind about him than it will be about President George W Bush.

Hope and History

History is being made today. A new era will begin. Whatever Barack Obama does after today, whatever he says in his inaugural address, those two statements will inevitably be true. The symbolism of a black American president is obvious for a nation that, within my lifetime, was riven by racial division and hatred. Today is a watershed moment. Today is one of those moments when people will forever remember where they were when it happened.

It remains to be seen what kind of president Obama will be. The early signs are good. His period since the election has shown what a consummate politician he is and what a deal maker. He has surrounded himself with experience and wisdom. He has brought on board political opponents. He has recognised the challenges ahead and hit the ground running with policies that are ready to go. Even when the world of Chicago politics has come back to haunt him, he sidestepped it neatly.

We are not yet in a position though to judge President Obama in terms of his policies and competence, in terms of what he has achieved. What we can judge is the effect he is having on his country and the rest of the world. His country is enthused. His country clearly wants the change he has promised. Two million people are expected to head for the streets of Washington today. Millions will watch on TV. They can't be doing that purely because of the colour of his skin. They are doing it because he is young and fresh. He represents hope for renewal. He is intelligent and charismatic. He reminds so many of JFK, another young president with a young family who represented something new and unprecedented in The White House, in his case a Catholic.

The rest of the world sees this as a new start too. The rest of the world is watching on optimistically and hoping for a fresh start and a new approach to some of its difficulties which have defeated so many previous administrations.

Here in Britain we watch on with curiousity and, at least in my case, some envy. If only we had a politician in this country who could arouse so much enthusiasm.

I have long argued that one of the reasons that our politics is the way it is is thanks to the monarchy. How can we have as our head of state someone who must be chosen not only from one race but from one family and then expect people to regard this as a fair and meritocratic country? Our head of state is known years in advance. He or she need do nothing to deserve it and indeed can do many things which would disqualify them if they were a politician such as the recent antics of Harry and Charles.

The monarchy exists at the top of our system and exists as a kind of logjam for change. We have ancient systems of government that remain unchanged because they suit the political parties. Labour entered government in 1997 with all kinds of promises about reform and yet we still have an unelected upper chamber of Parliament full of cronies put there for the convenience of the Prime Minister. The PM has all kinds of powers over all kinds of areas of our lives that reside in the Crown which he can exercise without recourse to Parliament.

This is not to say that this is a racist country. We have many ethnic minority politicians, although none who have yet reached the highest positions. But if we had our own Barack Obama (if only we did) I firmly believe he would reach the top on merit. The country is crying out for such a politician just as America was. The head of the equalities watchdog, Trevor Phillips, said yesterday that he thought that Britain was the least racist country in Europe. I think he's right. Indeed a couple of weeks ago Leah asked me what the attitudes to interracial relationships are like here and I said, from experience, that they are accepted and regarded as normal. That is something to be proud of.

Yet at the very top we still have the monarchy. Defenders of that institution often argue that it is a uniting force whereas a political head of state can be divisive. But that doesn't have to be true. The American presidency along with the constitution is something which unites that country much more effectively than our outdated British equivalents. Even an unpopular incumbent such as the outgoing George Bush still receives respect because of his office. When someone like Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and now Obama holds that office they are a uniting force all the more so because they have to go through a lengthy and gruelling democratic process in order to get there.

The world is watching today and it is watching with hope that this is going to be an historic moment for reasons beyond symbolism, important though that symbolism is. I will be watching with those same hopes. But I will also be hoping that the British people watch and begin to foster a desire for the same ability to unite behind a political leader and to design a system that is fair for everyone.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Rescue 2: The Sequel

Today Gordon Brown was forced to don his cape and save the world again, or at least save the banks. He did so of course three months ago, but, like Lois Lane, they got themselves into more trouble and SuperGord had to swoop in once more.

Or, perhaps the bank rescue of last year didn't work. It doesn't seem to have done. Sure they didn't collapse and drag down the economy with them, but what they have done has been the next worst outcome as thousands of the newly unemployed will attest.

Today's rescue package, which is a kind of giant insurance scheme for all of those bad debts, is an open ended taxpayer commitment of unknown size and duration. It is impossible to value these assets and so our exposure to them is unknown. We have been in uncharted territory now for months. Today the government is leading us into what is looking dangerously like a black hole.

Will it work? Who knows? We were told that the recapitalisation would work. What we didn't fully appreciate was just how bad the debt problem was. The £37 billion injected then has made little difference because it has all been swallowed up. Yet we were assured back in October that they had been ultra cautious with that recapitalisation and left lots of room for manoeuvre. Why was no proper audit done? The banks cannot lend because they have no money and nobody will lend to them. Why? What went wrong? Where the hell is our money?

And it is no use SuperGord claiming that he is riding to the rescue but that the mess has nothing to do with him. These problems were created on his watch. He set up the regulatory system that allowed it to happen. He boasted about the miracle economy he had created. Tony Blair admitted recently that they had just got lucky. He got out in time. Now the architect of that boom is clearing up the bust and making a mess of that too.

Even his much lauded package back in October was flawed and poorly executed. The government was saying lend money while the regulator was saying keep your cash reserves high. The government was charging the banks a punitively high interest rate whilst expecting the banks to lend to the country at ever decreasing rates. This is why they are now having to ride to the rescue again.

And let us not forget how we got where we are today on SuperGord's watch. The banks were lending too much. They were inflating a bubble and, like every bubble in the past, they were certain this one would never deflate. It was a new paradigm we were told. It's the same story every time. The language changes but the story stays the same.

Take Royal Bank of Scotland. This former darling of the sector that was so arrogant and cocksure just eighteen months ago is now, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt. It is now 70% owned by the British taxpayer. It will report losses this year of £8 billion. It's total exposure to these bad debts is over £20 billion, or the amount of money Brown spent in his fiscal stimulus package in November.

Brown says he is angry with RBS. That's good to know. This Prime Minister, who is known for throwing various items in his office when he has a tantrum, could be forgiven for summoning the management of RBS and pitching the odd filing cabinet at them now. They took over the Dutch bank ABN Amro a couple of years ago. This bank was stuffed full of toxic debt. RBS effectively imported that debt to Britain and now we have to pay for it.

RBS should be nationalised immediately. It should be nationalised because it almost has been already. It should be nationalised because it is the only way to save it and get it working again.

Most of all though RBS should be nationalised as an object lesson to the entire banking sector. Banks cannot be allowed to fail. Governments will always have to step in. The price they must pay for that security is responsibility. Banks ought to be conservatively run and august institutions because they fulfil a vital role in a modern economy. The recklessness and greed of banks like RBS has created this problem for all of us. We are all saddled with their debts. So RBS should be nationalised. When we are through this mess it should be broken up into its constituent parts and sold off so that we get our money back and as a demonstration of the price to be paid for greed and stupidity.

Spending Gracelessly

Robert Mugabe took his wife on holiday last week. Before he did so his wife, the spectacularly inappropriately named Grace, withdrew $92,000 to pay for it all from the country's central bank. That's not 92,000 Zimbabwean Dollars you understand. In a country that has to print notes in trillion denominations that wouldn't buy a grain of salt let alone the expensive shoes and handbags this shameless harridan favours.

Zimbabwe is a country, a supposedly civilised country, in which people have been dying of cholera, a wholly preventable disease caused by a lack of basic hygiene and sanitation. This is a country in which that disease has become rampant and killed more than 2000 people for want of electricity and basic chemicals to treat raw sewage. $92,000 would buy a lot of chemicals. It would buy a lot of medical treatment. Instead it is being spent on an annual shopping spree in the one part of the world that still allows this pair of crooks to shamelessly wander its streets.

Today Mugabe, back in the country he recently described as "mine", meets representatives from South Africa and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the MDC. Mugabe, ever brazen, ever confident will refuse to honour the agreement made just a few months ago, just as he has refused to honour the democratic will of his people for the last ten years but most egregiously last year. Yet still South Africa will not step in. Still they will not challenge this deluded kleptocrat, this tyrant who watches as his people starve or die of disease, who has them beaten for having the temerity to try and defeat him via the ballot box.

We are constantly told that South African leaders will not depose Mugabe because they still admire him as a freedom fighter, as a man who fought off the colonialists and thus is a hero in Africa. Yet in so doing they ignore what has happened in the thirty years since independence. This beautiful and prosperous country has been turned into a disease ravaged, bankrupt shell of a nation. It has been transformed by one man. Now he is exporting his problems to his neighbours in the form of refugees and disease. Yet still they prop him up. Still they refuse to take the very simple steps that would depose him and prompt the rest of the world to come to Zimbabwe's aid.

Morgan Tsvangirai will most likely be left with no choice but to walk away from the talks today because Mugabe will refuse to budge. But South Africa has a choice. They can choose to solve this problem at a stroke. Mugabe cannot survive if they withdraw their support for him and take certain actions which would make his position untenable. It is that simple and that easy.

Anything Achieved?

What exactly has Israel achieved in its 3 week campaign against Hamas in Gaza? If it has been 'a success' as Ehud Olmert claims then it has been so only in the strictest military sense. It will be temporary.

In terms of politics, with one eye on forthcoming elections, it may too be successful domestically. Internationally it has been a disaster. The images that have been beamed all around the world can have done Israel no good whatsoever.

It is easy for us here in the west to criticise Israel of course. We do not have to contend with missiles flying out of the sky sent from a neighbour who refuses to recognise our right to exist and who is sworn to drive us into the sea. Israel does as it does because it is faced by this intractable enemy and sees that the world, for all of its words and for all of the endless peace initiatives and for all the men like Tony Blair who come and try to make their reputations, cannot do any more than talk. Israel feels it cannot afford merely to talk. Israel feels it has to act and act decisively.

Yet this seems like a spectacular own goal. Hamas may have been bloodied but it remains unbowed. It will quickly re-establish its tunnels and, when it sees fit, the rockets will resume. It too has called a ceasefire and in so doing seeks to stay on the moral high ground. It makes demands and will find excuses if need be to end that cease fire and start the whole bloody spiral once again.

In the meantime Israel has damaged the homes and lives of thousands more, created more of the resentment which makes this face off more difficult to resolve and made itself look worse in the eyes of the world. Israel has the right to defend itself but by doing so in the way it has it now has to defend itself before the jury of world opinion.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Getting Interesting

Ken Clarke is to return to frontline British politics. This is a good, if slightly risky move on the part of the Conservative Party. Clarke is a big hitter and, that rarity, a politician who is actually rather liked by the public at large.

There are voices of dissent about this appointment because of Clarke's enthusiasm for the EU. This is silly. I for one fundamentally disagree with him about Europe and the Euro. But he is an extremely able politician. The party line on Europe is decided and, though he may disagree with it, he has to accept it. He served in government when the policy was very similar after all.

He is being brought back despite his well known views on Europe because, as even the most ardent Euro sceptic would accept, he remains one of the party's real stars. He has the lawyer's ability to dissect government policies and expose them for what they are. Labour will be worried. They have been getting things their own way in recent weeks and months and this may well reverse the tide. Given that they are already behind in the polls they may start to worry that their position could deteriorate further. Their ratings could easily fall to the levels seen over last summer when Brown's position looked decidedly shaky.

This is a bold but sensible move by David Cameron. The Conservatives, as we head into the last few months before an election, must look and sound like a government in waiting. Having Clarke on board can only aid this impression. He was one of the best Chancellors of the Exchequer we have seen in many years. He left the country's finances in much better shape than they are now, something he will no doubt mention from the front bench and on TV.

The new opposition team Cameron is announcing this week may well be that which becomes the next government. He needs to have his best talent in position. It is to be hoped that he also brings back David Davis who is also skilled at skewering Labour spin and pretensions.

We are entering a fascinating period in British politics.

Options Narrowing

The Brown and Mandelson plan is not working. Despite their frenzied charging about the country on their recession tour and their daily grid of announcement after announcement, a YouGov poll in The Sunday Times has them trailing the Tories by 13 points.

This does not do my prediction for a 2009 election much good, although I remain convinced that this remains the intention. The frenzy we saw these last couple of weeks after the bounce in the polls Brown enjoyed after the bank rescue was intended to cement those gains and build on them. If he had managed to engineer a poll lead he would have called an election.

Now it's not looking good. Things are set to get much much worse over the coming months and, barring unforeseen events, it is difficult to see how Labour can turn this around.

It makes decisions like Heathrow's 3rd runway all the more baffling. This is a hugely contentious issue and they are going ahead with it despite huge opposition in London and on their own back benches. If the poll ratings continue to decline Labour MPs will become more fractious and that will only make matters worse.

The irony of all this is that a few months ago some were openly plotting against the Prime Minister. Then along came the banking crisis and he was saved. Now it is too late. They are stuck with the man. For better or for worse Gordon Brown will lead Labour into the next election whenever that turns out to be. How he must be wishing that he had called that election in 2007. His MPs are wishing the same, or that they had summoned the courage to get rid of him last summer.

John Mortimer

I feel that I should point out that I am not unaware that John Mortimer died last week. I recorded the death of Ricardo Montalban but did not do the same for John Mortimer who, let's face it, was of much greater consequence in the world however much you might enjoy Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or indeed Fantasy Island, although I plead not guilty to the latter.

There were lots of people writing fondly of John Mortimer, many of whom had known and met the man and could tell lots of amusing stories of his charm, wit, literary and lawyerly skills along with his legendary zest for life and champagne. I largely felt content to leave it to such people to celebrate a life rather than contribute myself since I could only do so second hand.

I've just changed my mind however.

I have been engaged in an online discussion verging on an argument on another site today with regard to god and the afterlife prompted by that silly bus driver and his refusal to drive a vehicle with an atheist message written on it. Indeed in a bar tonight I even got into an argument with a woman on the subject.

The reason I bring this up is because I, as an atheist, do not believe in an afterlife obviously. The religious don't seem to understand how this cannot upset and worry me. Well, take a look at John Mortimer. I have no idea if he was a religious man. I have no idea if he believed in heaven and hell. I suspect not however. John Mortimer was the sort of man who enjoyed life and very much lived life to the full. He wrote joyously. He talked effusively. He left behind him in his books and screenplays and in the memories of everyone he met or saw him on TV a big part of himself meaning that, in a very real way, he will live forever.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Nationalisation

As has been obvious for months, the recession we are currently enduring became a reality because of the credit crunch. It risks turning into a slump of 1930s proportions unless confidence can be restored and money starts to flow again.

What is happening at present is that normal lending to sound and perfectly well run companies has just dried up. That is why this situation is so dangerous. Companies like Woolworths have quickly collapsed because they were businesses struggling even when times were good. No banker, even a bank unafflicted by bad debts, would have propped up such a company in a recession. It would be taking on another bad debt and that is how we got into this mess in the first place. The trouble is that this is now starting to affect good and well run companies which ought, under normal circumstances, to get credit to facilitate their day to day operations. It is the absence of such facilities which has hastened this crisis and risks making it worse, decimating the British economy.

Governments around the world, but particularly the British and American governments, need to address this situation and fast. Yesterday, the short selling ban on British banks was lifted and shares plummeted. They did so because our banks are in a parlous state and would not survive without government guarantees. Who can criticise such sentiment about our banks now? Their shares, once rock solid and a fundamental part of any portfolio, now live on the edge of the precipice of nationalisation. They are set to report heavy losses in the coming weeks at a time when, in previous years, they would have been reporting record profits, huge bonuses and dividends, now all gone.

Somehow confidence has to be restored so that lending can resume. That unfortunately is going to mean some kind of scheme to get all of those reckless loans and other investments off the books of our leading banks and give them a clean slate. In some cases it might be best for the government to just nationalise the likes of RBS. It has almost done so anyway. The trouble is that it has also taken a good and well managed bank like Lloyds TSB and allied it with HBOS and created another basket case. This was a bad decision at the time and looks like a worse one now if this new and massive bank is going to end up heading the same way as RBS.

According to Robert Peston of the BBC, who seems to have all of the right sources, the current thinking is a kind of insurance scheme which will enable the banks to stay independent whilst also getting that clean slate they all need. But this was what was supposed to be achieved by the last bail out.

The government is dithering too much and is just postponing the inevitable. It is also making bad decisions as it has with the Lloyds HBOS merger, creating another giant bad bank and thus ensuring that it won't lend either. They dithered over Northern Rock when it should have been nationalised, now they are in danger of doing the same thing but on an even bigger scale.

They should immediately demand a clear indication of what the liabilities of our banks are. If these are too onerous then the banks should be nationalised on a case by case basis. If HBOS is in danger of dragging down Lloyds then the merger should be stopped immediately and HBOS nationalised. Insurance or some other scheme for taking on bad debts should be offered to those banks that are deemed viable on condition that they start lending on a sensible basis once again. What is needed is action and action now. All banks are not the same. They need to be treated individually with individual action plans to ensure that they are solvent, viable and acting like banks should. If we are to recover we need a vibrant, competitive and properly functioning banking system.

Nationalisation should not be seen as a defeat, or something to be opposed for reasons of dogma or ideology. The Conservatives were wrong to oppose the nationalisation of Northern Rock. They should have been advocating it for months while the government dithered. Nationalisation, under certain circumstances, is a sensible and pragmatic response to an unprecedented situation. I am no believer in the state running enterprise on a wide scale but sometimes needs must. It doesn't have to be the end of the road. There is no reason why, a few years down the line, nationalised banks shouldn't then be privatised again. That is the best chance for taxpayers to get their money back.

The government has already nationalised one bank. It's mistake has been to try to wind it down rather than use it as a vehicle to get lending started again. What is needed is imagination, courage and real dynamism rather than the mere appearance of it as we have seen these last couple of weeks.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Missing the Bus

A bus driver in Southampton has refused to drive a bus bearing one of the atheist posters I mentioned on here last week. The poster "There's probably no God: Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" offended the delicate sensibilities of Ron Heather, a Christian.

You need to have a very special level of sanctimony to be the kind of person who is so offended by a piece of paper that they refuse to be seen near it. Mr Heather makes the rather odd point that if the poster had been about Islam then there would have been uproar. Yet the poster makes no mention of any specific religion. It can equally be applied to Christianity, Islam, Judaism or whatever you like. It is saying, in extremely reasonable terms, that there probably is no God. It's hardly in your face, finger jabbing proselytising is it?

As usual the company for whom Mr Heather works have rolled over and allowed him to maintain his ridiculous stance. Why do we indulge people who get so worked up over nothing? People who are prepared to be 'offended' because someone else has a different opinion or makes a different lifestyle choice should be told to grow up and worry about something more important.

A couple of years ago a similarly sanctimonious Muslim checkout assistant in Sainsburys refused to sell alcohol to customers. Again he was indulged.

The Advertising Standards Authority advised companies to be careful about what sort of posters they put up near mosques after one such mosque complained about a poster bearing a scantily clad woman.

This is a democracy, notwithstanding the efforts of our present government. Those of us who have different beliefs to Mr Heather have a perfect right to express them. By claiming offence he is attempting to give his beliefs primacy. If someone objects that strongly to alcohol why would he go and work in a shop that sells it? He has every right not to drink, he does not have the right to impede anybody else from doing what is perfectly legal and reasonable. Similarly if someone has a hang up about the female form for reasons peculiar to them then that is their problem. Don't look!

On the one hand this is a funny and silly story. But fundamentally it is about something more serious. By claiming offence people like Mr Heather are attempting to give their views and beliefs prominence and a higher priority. By indulging them these companies are allowing them to get away with it.

No Miracles Here

Flight 1549 from New York's La Guardia Airport was hit in both engines by a flock of birds. It is a known hazard during what is the riskiest part of any flight - taking off. What then happened however was not a miracle. That is just a lazy, sensationalist news headline.

The passengers on that plane, all of whom survived, should not be giving thanks to God today. Why is it that God gets the credit when things go right but when things go wrong, as they do all over the world every minute of every day, he is absolved from blame 'because God does not intervene'?

The passengers should today be giving thanks to the pilot, Captain Sullenberger, to Airbus, U.S Airways and its cabin crew and the FAA.

What happened was not a miracle, it was the consequence of well trained people doing their jobs. It was a consequence of an experienced and skilled pilot who did not panic but ditched the plane in a conveniently located stretch of water. It was a consequence of a modern and well engineered plane doing what it is designed to do in a situation which is factored in when it is being developed and built. It was a consequence of well rehearsed procedures which most of us are only faintly aware of when we only half listen to the safety demonstration at the start of the flight.

We should watch on but our response should be appreciation and applause for a system that worked, not amazement. We are all quick to point the finger of blame when things go wrong. What happened last night was positive proof that flying really is the safest form of transport. Even when things go wrong, thanks to technology and training and experience, a happy outcome often results. We saw it in New York last night and we saw it at Heathrow just a few months ago when another plane had to be glided into landing, this time only narrowly missing the runway, after a complete engine failure. It made it again thanks to a skilled and experienced pilot.

There is much that feels miraculous about modern life but it is very much man made.

The Mystery of the Third Runway

So, they're actually going to do it. The government has announced it will go ahead with plans for a third runway and a sixth terminal at Heathrow.

It's difficult really to know quite how to interpret this. Maybe they are actually making a decision which, they genuinely believe, is for the good of the country. It is difficult to understand on any other level. Politically it will make things very difficult for them It may well lead to the loss of several London seats in an election which is going to be very tight. It is going to lead to all kinds of problems with rebellious backbenchers. It is going to be hugely controversial leading to fights with environmentalists, aggrieved west Londoners, the Mayor of London and various other local authorities. It makes their claims to be doing something about greenhouse gases even more ridiculous than they were already. All in all it is what civil servants might describe through clenched teeth as a brave move.

They have tried to put the best spin on it as they can but anyone can see it is a nonsense. The documents put together with BAA to try to make a convincing case about pollution were partial and will probably be the basis for a legal challenge in the coming months. Their 'deal' which apparently convinced cabinet rebels is similarly obtuse. There are lots of claims about keeping pollution down by using newer planes but this will be evaded as will the promise to restrict the number of flights. If the runway ever gets built it will be on the promise of these reduced flights but that number will inevitably be revised upwards.

As I wrote the other day, the expansion of Heathrow should be a non starter simply because it is in the wrong place and is already too small and too congested. Pollution of the non CO2 variety will inevitably increase however marvellous new technology may turn out to be. All of the arguments about climate change are ridiculous and I won't go into them again here. But the government claims to take them seriously, it believes in 'the science' and will head off for another international conference later this year aiming to cut our emissions by 80%. The two positions it is adopting are rather difficult to reconcile.

What is most objectionable about all of this however is that our Prime Minister is once again going to push something through by circumventing democracy. The man who has appointed several ministers through the increasingly convenient and still unreformed House of Lords will not be allowing a vote in Parliament because he knows he would probably lose. But this makes it all the more difficult to understand why he is doing this. The process for approving this, even without a vote in Parliament, is long and drawn out and will take until well beyond the next election. The Conservatives have said they will stop the third runway if elected. What does Brown have to gain by pushing this through and in such a dictatorial high handed manner? It's genuinely perplexing. No doubt he will tell us it's 'the right decision for Britain'. That is debatable. It is the right decision for Spanish owned BAA for sure. Quite why the government is so eager to please them remains a mystery.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Green Shoots

There was a huge and ridiculously disproportionate amount of fuss made yesterday about junior minister, Shriti Vadera's claim to have seen 'a few green shoots of recovery'. Shock, horror exclaimed various news outlets and Westminster chattering class types with nothing better to do. Conservatives leapt on this with glee whilst intoning gravely about how awful and insensitive it was. This is only to be expected. It's what politicians do. But more bizarre was the reaction from journalists who reported it with a wry smile and shake of the head, perhaps trying to show their own kind of bogus sensitivity to the travails of the nation and the newly unemployed.

What the Baroness (it's ironic how reliant that great leveller and fighter for social justice Gordon Brown has become on cronies elevated to the House of Lords) was saying was that, though things are pretty bad at the moment there are tentative signs that things may be improving. It's only the stupidity of our politics and the people who report it that picked up on her words rather than the message.

I was out today and I too saw some green shoots. Unfortunately they were proper green shoots in somebody's garden. But then this is quite remarkable when you consider how cold it has been lately. Perhaps this is a decent metaphor for our situation after all.

We should take heed of this. We are in danger of talking ourselves into something much more serious and destructive by our constant doom and gloom. The government itself is guilty of this with its constant announcements and hyperactivity which never really amounts to much. Gordon Brown gave the game away today when he told us about this governmental action. There have been announcements every day this week, he said, with more to come. It's an announcement a day then just as we thought. So are these announcements really about healing the economy, Gordon, or are they aimed at healing your poll ratings? If they are about the economy then why wait to announce them? Why not get these measures out there and working straight away?

At the moment things are bad, not unremittingly bad but mostly bad. But it is not insensitive to say that there are tentative signs that things may be starting to improve. Credit may be starting to flow in certain isolated ways and that is a good sign. We need more of the same. It's a very faint green shoot emerging from the frozen ground. If the weather turns cold again it may regret it. But you have to start somewhere.