Wednesday, 30 November 2011

PMQs 30th November 2011 - The Moustachioed Edition


Hairy excrescences have lately been sprouting on the lips of various public figures, from BBC football presenters and pundits to deputy political editors. It's all in the name of charity of course, specifically Movember which tries to raise awareness of men's health issues, particularly prostate cancer.

 
Yet, as the strikers strike and the Labour Party is led by someone who seems as stuck in the past as a DeLorean without a flux capacitor, the moustaches on the faces of (mostly) male MPs seemed redolent of a bygone age too. It was all so very 70s or early 80s. One cannot help feeling that for some union leaders and their sponsored MPs, this is a chance to take us back to those heady days of anger and conflict and holding the country to ransom.


What resulted was a PMQs that was more than usually angry and tribal and thus spectacularly unrevealing. Dave came with a shiny new soundbite to throw at Forrest. Forrest may well have come with them too, but if so he fluffed them as usual. But never mind, he had yesterday's annual statement to get his teeth into and the shadow chancellor next to him to add some apposite gurns and gestures. It was notable that none of these frontline players had chosen to sprout some facial hair. Dave hinted that he is incapable of such hirsuteness. Forrest didn't need to, we just assumed.  But perhaps this is his opportunity to outdo the Prime Minister at last. He could always get a falsie or bring Peter Mandelson back and ask him to grow one for him like that one he once had back when Labour were still new and still learning to hate him.



Forrest, commendably, did not try to avoid the subject of the day and came out fighting. But he came against a PM who was ready for him and fired back with counter claims whenever Forrest tried to paint a picture of unfairness or government intransigence - a line that must surely have come from the unions. Dave had all the confidence that a couple of easy wins has given him despite it being another tricky week for the government. He was determined to paint Labour as in the pocket of the unions, of being weak and unprincipled. As usual he came up with the telling phrases, both pre-prepared and off the cuff.

Now they moved on to yesterday's statement with Forrest trying to get Cameron to admit that Plan A has not worked and that the deficit will continue longer than hoped for. Dave was ready for this, as well he might have been, pointing out that Labour were now complaining about extra borrowing whilst advocating that we borrow even more to stimulate the economy - a line that the public are demonstrably rejecting. 

The exchanges between the two became rather heated this week, suggesting that both sides knew that this may well turn out to be a pivotal moment. Was this a sensible moment, when the government was on the back foot over the economy, for the unions to distract people with a strike? Nevertheless Forrest rode into battle on their behalf, which was new. This was when Dave deployed his jokes and his new soundbite. They were all shouting at him in unison, or should that have been for Unison, he quipped. But the real one for the news was the one he said twice: His opponent, he said, is irresponsible, left wing and weak. So much for the end of Flashman. If only he could grow that moustache.

Our Selfish Fat Cat Public Sector


As I write, a police helicopter is buzzing above watching over the strikers picketing our local library. I'm sure they are very grateful for this airborne placard. It will add to their self righteous sense of grievance and embolden them to think that the state is so concerned.

Today's Independent leader column argues that this strike is an understandable cry of rage from ordinary people bearing the brunt of a prolonged financial crisis which was none of their making. To be fair the column then goes on to argue that the strike is a mistake and badly timed. It could also have added, although of course it doesn't, that it is deeply selfish. Did they not hear the Chancellor yesterday? We're broke. Where do they imagine the money is going to come from to pay for their generous pensions? The same unions who criticise ministers for telling us that we are all in it together are effectively telling the rest of us in the private sector that they do not want to be lumped in with us either. But they still expect us to subsidise them thanks all the same. Worker solidarity is seemingly an optional process.

But the Independent's column is wrong in another sense. We do all bear some responsibility for the mess we find ourselves in. The same is true across the western world. It is why the Euro will most likely collapse at least partially some time in the next few weeks. We have all been living in a fantasy world in which we can keep borrowing to pay the bills and expect others to pick up the tab. This has been true of all of us as we indulged in the consumer society, but particularly in the public sector where government after government has promised ever greater goodies paid for by borrowing. Ludicrously the Labour Party thinks we should still be doing the same thing right now, having not learnt the lesson that a boom fuelled by borrowing is not a real boom at all, however Keynesian you call it.

Oh it's all those dastardly markets say the left. Yet what are the markets? They are not people in pin striped suits making a quick buck out of the rest of us. The market, particularly the bond market, represents all of us. They are almost entirely the accumulated savings of all of us looking to pay for all of our tomorrows via pension funds. They have been lending to governments, supposedly the surest of all investments, only to be told that those governments may not be able to pay them back in full. They may have to take haircuts. Yet those same governments have somehow been able to make out that this is somehow the fault of those that lent them the money. It's a remarkable conjuring trick. Markets are demanding higher interest rates to compensate them for greater risk on these formerly risk free assets. It's a perfectly rational and reasonable process with our money. It's the politicians and those who keep demanding they borrow more who have taken leave of their senses.

The major difference is that public sector pensions can never go bust, that's why they think they can defend their unaffordable entitlements paid at the expense of all of us. Working a little longer and paying a little more is something unconscionable if you live in the public sector fantasy world, despite the fact that we are all living longer and can often spend nearly as long retired as we did working and paying taxes.

The reason the western world is going through this crisis is because we have for too long lived beyond our means. Now we are having a painful reality check. If the contradictions between what we want and what we are prepared to pay for are not addressed we will become ever more uncompetitive with the outside world and there will be no money left to pay for those legions of public sector workers with their gold plated working conditions and pension packages delivering services so poor that they would lead to anyone in the private sector going bust. 

We have become accustomed to blaming our woes on greedy bankers. It's an easy option. It's one we ought to dismiss out of hand before it's too late. Our woeful and out of touch public sector workers are being just as greedy and selfish as the worst pin striped beasts of lefty propaganda. The difference is that bankers make money for the country whilst helping themselves to a small percentage and paying high taxes on it. Our gilded public sector helps itself to our money and expects the rest of us to keep working so as to keep them in the manner to which millions of them have become accustomed. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Autumn Statement: Gordon's Legacy






Gordon Brown, it might be assumed, has nothing to point to as his legacy, well nothing to be proud of anyway. The man who became prime minister just because he felt it his due rather than because he had any ideas for what to do, left office with little or nothing he can look back on with pride. Even John Major can at least point to our opt out from the Euro and perhaps the National Lottery as achievements.

Yet today's Autumn Statement showed that Brown can boast of a kind of legacy, a lasting achievement of which someone like him would probably be rather proud: not only is the current leadership of his party very much in his image and following his brand of deceitful, dishonest and deluded economics, the hated Tories, far from breaking with the past, feel compelled to adopt some of his conceits and deceits too.

Under Brown these autumn statements were turned into the second budgets of the year, another chance for him to play to the gallery and indulge in vainglorious announcements of imaginary plenty and largesse rather than the simple progress reports they had once been. Osborne was supposed to be dumping all of that. Today, given the exigencies of the situation, he felt the need instead to adopt a more Brown like approach and announce a few spoons full of sugar to help our medicine go down, gimmicks and micro measures that mean little and will achieve little but might distract us a very little from the awful awful reality.

And across from Osborne, looking as smug as a cat that has just inherited a dairy, was Ed Balls who told us that all would have been different if we could only have kept splurging cash Brown style. Ten years of boom fuelled by public and private borrowing was not enough for Brown and post Brown Labour Party. They want even more, imagining that this time it will have a different result and consequence.

As Newsnight revealed last week, the reality is that there is actually little difference between the parties. One tells us they are cutting and getting austere whilst borrowing record amounts and actually cutting very little. The unions lend a hand by calling a strike and enabling the government to look tough.

The other side tells us that they would cut a very little less, tax a little more (but only on the rich and those nasty bankers of course) and that this would enable us to grow rather than drown in debt and go running for help from the IMF. They say that they would invest - Brown's favourite weasel word - rather than pay down the debt, forgetting to mention that we are not paying down the debt just trying not to borrow quite as much to pay the bills.

That is Gordon's legacy. We have two parties pretending to be opposite sides of an argument that barely exists. Meanwhile overall spending continues to rise inexorably as if Gordon never went away. His legacy is that real cuts are regarded as politically impossible, real honesty and fiscal responsibility is something that politicians dare not try.

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Search for Fenton



The above is the latest viral video to obsess the internet, set in the exclusive surroundings of Richmond Park. It has all the ingredients: anger, frustration, a misbehaving animal and a desperate man who may soon be in need of some assistance from the dog whisperer. The real question however is what kind of man calls his dog Fenton? Do the residents of leafy Richmond really have to live up to the stereotype to that extent? Or is this a conspiracy to give a much needed boost to their property prices?

Of course videos like this are that rarity a growth industry in these troubled times and it's one which is remarkably democratic and egalitarian. A quarter of us now have smart phones  and so we have the means to film our own little snapshots of daily life, from the mean streets of London to its leafy suburbs. Youtube is effectively a constantly evolving snapshot of our lives enabling us to sympathise, ridicule, wince, groan and shout at the misfortunes, travails, hilarious mishaps or touching moments caught on camera. The best part is that, if your particular snapshot catches on, you can even make a few quid out of it, although sadly for the owner of Fenton it goes to the video capturer rather than the subject.

The reason that Fenton and his desperate owner have caught on is that we have all been there with our animals, indeed people have made real films about them such as Marley and Me, which is that rarity a hit Jennifer Aniston movie. I once had a dog, the prosaically named german shepherd Ben, who could have featured in a video a week for his entire 12 years since he compensated for his comparatively run of the mill name with behaviour and idiosyncrasies that would have enraptured anyone who could enjoy them vicariously. Sadly however he lived in the pre digital era, otherwise I would by now have been in Hollywood lunching with Ms Aniston as she tried to repeat her earlier hit.

Thus far the owner of Fenton has remained anonymous, possibly because of his shame at that name, or maybe because he fears prosecution for the maiming of an innocent deer.  Alternatively perhaps his new found fame is the problem, after all the British tabloids are sure to be on his tail, photographers will soon be camped on his doorstep and his ex directory phone will be ringing off the hook. Compared to that, being chased by Fenton the loopy labrador is a cake walk.

PS

The owner of Fenton is apparently an architect called Max.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Over to Toby

Today, rather than write anything myself (too little time anyway) I refer you to this excellent post from Toby Young on the Telegraph site in which he shreds the debt delusions and dishonesty of the Left and of the current Labour leadership. It's a long and detailed post but well worth a read. Honourable mention should also go to this post from the always excellent and thought provoking Dan Hannan telling lefties what capitalists actually think rather than what they would like to think we think so that they can set up camps, live in their fantasy world and cling on to their cloying self righteousness.

I'll be back on Monday.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Our Feral Tabloids



When you think about the Leveson inquiry this week and the various revelations about the way some of our newspapers and journalists behave, you cannot help but be reminded of the riots just 3 months ago, the same riots that our newspapers reported and commented on with such zealous rage. The overwhelming majority were agreed that the riots were the consequence of lawlessness and opportunism rather than a political cry for help from a dispossessed underclass. And so they went out and stole at will. It was a demonstration of how flimsy and vulnerable our society can be when a section of it decides to ignore the rules.

And so it is with our newspapers. The majority of journalists, just like the majority of British citizens, obey the rules because to do otherwise is anarchy. There is also the matter of morality of course. But a substantial number have realised that they can ignore the rules with impunity and that little or nothing will happen to them if they do. Indeed the culture in some newspapers is not unlike those of the gangs who went out and stole and smashed and set ablaze. They are in ruthless competition with one another but at the same time watch each others backs and close ranks when threatened by outsiders. Anyone who fights back, however righteous their cause, is an enemy and will be attacked without mercy.

The way that some newspapers and journalists behave in pursuit of profit and career progression is a classic example of what can go wrong with capitalism. It is why it needs regulating. But what about a free press say the newspapers. What about it? Does the freedom of the press allow hacks to hack phones, follow people, go through their bins, lie, cheat and steal? Or is that an abuse of freedom, a case of market irrationality?

Like the rioters of August some reporters have done what they have done because they knew they could get away with it. The Press Complaints Commission has no teeth and politicians were too fearful of press power. But as so often, and as we saw in August, eventually those given free rein go too far and have to be pulled back.

There is no good reason why newspapers shouldn't be regulated. Broadcasters are regulated and manage to report the news without fear or favour. There is no need for heavy handed regulation of the press which follows a decent moral code. There would be no need for instance, as the likes of Neil Kinnock have suggested, to demand political impartiality of newspapers. So long as all newspapers reflect the spectrum then you pay your money and take your choice.

But when reporters overstep the mark and harass people for the sake of tawdry gossip they should be heavily fined. Furthermore, as Sienna Miller pointed out, how is it acceptable for photographers to camp outside homes, chase women up streets and try to provoke them into reactions that make pictures saleable? That is harassment. It is a criminal offence. Photographers acting that way should be prosecuted and if necessary jailed.

The nation was appalled by the sight of people, out of greed and stupidity, taking to the streets and behaving like feral beasts. The nation is similarly appalled at the ability of newspapers and reporters to set aside basic humanity and hound people for the sake of little more than gossip. Their antics, as we are seeing, are no better than we saw from the marauding hoodies in London, Birmingham and Manchester. What happened in August was a sign of a sick society. Perhaps our newspapers have become part of that sickness. If so their rehabilitation will have to be part of the wider treatment.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

PMQs 23rd November 2011 - The Unemployment Edition


It is a fortnight now since Dave and Forrest faced each other across the dispatch box. On that occasion, by common consent, Dave slam dunked the nasally challenged one. I saw the exchange but did not get around to writing about it as I was importuned at the vital moment by someone bearing a quantity of excellent red wine. By the end of the evening I actually had a certain sympathy for the dweeb in chief. My head was spinning as much as his, albeit for altogether more agreeable reasons. I probably felt much as did many Labour MPs, albeit without the taxpayer and union subsidy.

So what would Forrest come up with today? He might have decided to attack Dave on the news that the man who tells us that we are all in it together has today been revealed to have sufficient readies to buy some land for cash next to his constituency home. Perhaps in future the field (all £140,000 worth of it) will be home to a pony for young Florence. For now it looks like a prime minister rolling in it while the rest of us struggle to heat our homes. Perhaps wisely however Forrest chose not to bring this up. The unkind would suggest that this was because he only found out about it in this morning's papers and he's not great at thinking up questions that quickly. But it may be more because he feared comparisons with Labour's various property millionaires, many of whom have become enriched on the public purse, indeed Forrest is now one of them since he was forced by Daily Mail sensibilities to marry the woman who previously bought and paid for his home.

Instead Forrest chose to go on unemployment, particularly youth unemployment which hit the million mark last week. Dave pointed out, in what is starting to sound like a default response, that this is a problem across Europe and that it started rising under Labour as far back as 2003, during the boom years. Forrest came back with a kind of skewing of figures that his nodding dog shadow chancellor and his former boss would have been proud of. But somehow it always lacks resonance coming from Forrest. He was lacking punch all round today. Does he have a cold? It's impossible to tell with those adenoids.

His trouble is that he has default responses to the PM's answers. It's alway's the PM is complacent, out of touch or, his particular favourite, that simply is not good enough. He then singularly fails to show why this is not good enough, as though the simple assertion will do. It is, to choose a phrase at random, simply not good enough. He can't even concoct a decent soundbite, the very least that should be expected of someone who can prepare these things well in advance. Indeed that's his problem. He prepares it all in advance and then says it regardless of the answer from the PM. It's like two actors talking to one another in a play but reading from different pages. The best attempt he tried was when he hilariously accused Dave of playing politics with youth unemployment. This coming from the man who sits next to his gurning and gesticulating shadow chancellor. Oh how we laughed. We swore a little too. Well, I did.



And Labour's other problem, apart from their lacklustre leadership, is that their line on the economy and on unemployment is simply failing to resonate with the electorate. The pudgy attack dog next to Forrest could just as easily be describing their poll ratings with his famous flat lining salute as the state of the economy. Forrest asked about the future jobs fund, a Brown ruse which essentially created work for people in the state sector because none were available elsewhere. It's why we have this vast debt and deficit even now, more jam tomorrow paid for by tomorrow's workers who will probably be foreigners because they are the only ones prepared to do demeaning jobs picking fruit.

But that is the problem with the British economy and with the western model in general. We are not creating the jobs for the young we once did. Industry has been exported and there are not enough jobs for the graduates Labour told us we needed for the modern economy. We educated hundreds of thousands in the arts and humanities and media studies when we needed scientists and engineers. Instead we have to import them.

Dave got the better of Forrest today not just because he is genuinely bad and clueless but because his critique makes no sense. He talked about bankers and found yet another way (the ninth as Dave gleefully pointed out) of spending a banker bonus tax. He tried to pretend that he had the answers when it was his party's prescription for the nation's ills that created the problems from which we must now painfully extract ourselves. The tragedy is that none of the parties have any real answer for our youth unemployment problem because it is engrained and the consequence of globalisation and political wishful thinking going back a generation or more.  All that these sessions prove is that this youthful political generation which has known little of the real world outside Westminster looks incapable of addressing the fundamental problems and arguing for drastic change across the whole western world.

Monday, 21 November 2011

This Confusing Universe



Am I alone in sensing a certain amount of trepidation amongst scientists at the news that latest experiments at CERN have repeated the results of neutrinos travelling faster than light? For now of course they are saying that this is still to be confirmed, which is only right and proper given how astonishing a revelation this could be. And they are also telling us that, if confirmed, this will be exciting and 'what they came into science for'. Yeah, right.

Scientists are just human and they are as reluctant to admit that they are wrong as the rest of us. But when this could turn upside down our entire understanding of the universe and cast doubt on one of the towering achievements of science of the last century along with the work of thousands of scientists ever since, it is bound to set nerves on edge, and not just amongst those who have promised to eat their shorts.

It's almost as if the universe has decided to show it has an even greater sense of humour than its predecessor god who used to allow pilgrims to die in horrible coach crashes, allowed priests to contract the black death and smited anyone and everyone regardless of piety or innocence. The problem is that scientists have begun to believe their own hype, much like the priests - one only has to watch some of the recent programmes from Brian Cox waxing lyrical about how much we understand to see that. If this experiment is confirmed then we understand a great deal less than we think, or else it could just be that the universe is a great deal more complex than we thought and nothing like as regimented. I doubt they will be keen on that theory.

Science has indeed made great bounds in understanding the world around us but it just as frequently makes horrendous mistakes. From gloom laden predictions about global pandemics to speculations about how the outlying parts of our solar system look, the world and the universe surprises and confounds us daily. And science, for all that it has proven adept at explaining things after the event, is hopeless at predicting them. That's why space exploration frequently surprises us, why we can't predict when earthquakes will happen, why we have an incomplete understanding of tornadoes or even of aerodynamics and why diseases come along and don't do what they are supposed to. It is also why we should take with a very large pinch of salt predictions about what our chaotic climate is going to do in years to come and what we need to do to prevent catastrophe. When Prince Charles lectures us about saving the planet he is actually being a good deal less sensible than King Cnut who, contrary to myth, actually did not believe he could control the tides and conducted an experiment to prove it.

Scientists today are wont to believe much of the hype written about them in our credulous and sensation hungry media. Only scientists are believed without question. Science and its practitioners has acquired a kind of unquestioning obedience amongst politicians and journalists who, perhaps because they don't really understand, don't ask pertinent questions. Yet the history of science is replete with examples of ideas which, contrary to the oft repeated maxim that they are not correct rather than the least wrong at any point of time, are accepted as definitive and beyond question, so much so that policy is dictated by them to a worrying and often ruinous extent. I'm not just talking about climate change and that much talked of consensus here. Look at the panic over swine flu, the column inches written about it and the millions splurged on what turned out to be a heavy cold.

Nature is much smarter than us, however much we think we understand it. I am willing to make a very substantial bet that the scientists at CERN will announce in the next few months that they have been unable to detect any sign of the Higgs Boson, the so called god particle. The universe is extremely reluctant to fit into our nice, neat designs for it. And if it is confirmed that neutrinos really can travel faster than light then it's back to the drawing board for all concerned in this field. After all, for all of its success in the real world, nobody has any real understanding of why the sub atomic world behaves in the way it does. Schrodinger's cat is still both dead and alive.

Perhaps this episode will teach scientists and the rest of us more humility. For all that humanity has made enormous strides in our couple of hundred thousand years of existence, the universe is an awful lot older and, it seems, rather contrary, which is only to be expected amongst the very aged. And anyway, if travelling faster than light really is possible then that means we stand a much greater chance of one day communicating with others and maybe seeing more of it than is possible from our current vantage point. Ultimately, if we are to one day have the understanding currently claimed, we will need to get out more. Perhaps we can hitch a ride on a neutrino.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Euro Anger Goes Viral



For those who doubt the growing anger amongst the unconsulted public about the state of affairs in Europe, note that this speech by Nigel Farage is now going viral. Farage as always makes his point forcefully and well. This really is a golden opportunity for the Eurosceptics. There is a by election looming, although as yet the writ has not been moved, for the seat of Alan Keen who died earlier this week. What chance turning that into the referendum we keep being denied people of Feltham and Heston?

Thursday, 17 November 2011

A Lesson In Irresponsibility


For a new generation, Forrest's party is sounding an awful lot like the last one: long on soundbites, long on vacuous promise and short on detailed policy. It's not unlike the days of Gordon Brown when in opposition, see my series Things That Gordon Said.

Today Forrest made a speech calling for responsible capitalism. But what does that mean? Does it need responsible government alongside it? The government of which Forrest was a part spent money it didn't have and created a huge structural deficit it now says we shouldn't be trying to eradicate so quickly. Is that responsible? Was allowing huge levels of immigration thus creating greater competition for jobs and forcing down wages responsible? Ignore Labour's crocodile tears on youth unemployment yesterday, this was a problem which has been growing for years, even during their borrowing funded boom.

On Radio Five Live this morning Ed Balls got a bit of a kicking from the callers to a phone in who refused to take seriously his assessment of our situation and his remedies for it since he was a principal architect of Labour's boom and bust. That is and remains their problem.

Yes we want responsible capitalism. To a large extent we see it on every high street and in factories up and down the land. Ultimately, in a media savvy world, it pays companies to act responsibly, be good employers and to look after their customers. It is no coincidence that the worst public service tends to come from enterprises that have a monopoly or where there is restricted competition and that applies in the public and private sectors.

The last thing we need is lectures on responsibility from a party that acted with reckless irresponsibility with the nation's finances and managed to increase unemployment even during our fake boom. At the same time they presided over a fall in education standards, a lowering of productivity and pushed up the costs of everything through a combination of taxes and regulation. It is their irresponsibility for short term electoral advantage that we are all now paying the price for. That, and not his strange voice and general weirdness is why nobody takes seriously the leader of the Labour Party. We haven't forgotten.

Oh, and by the way, here is what Gordon said in the manifesto of 1997: 

'The myth that the solution to every problem is increased spending has been comprehensively dispelled...The level of public spending is no longer the best measure of effectiveness of government action in the public interest.'

What about that, Ed and Ed? 

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

An Accent on Humour


Apparently Australians have been offended by David Cameron's joke with accompanying accent at the Lord Mayor's banquet earlier this week. How very prissy of them. Really one would have expected better of a country that usually is renowned, much like we Brits, for its sense of humour. How else can you explain the fact that they are the only major country in the world to use the alternative vote system and have indeed used it to elect someone who actually lost and then turned out to be Julia Gillard?

For heaven's sake this is the country of tinnies which gave the world the barbecue and the rotary washing line. This is the nation of stereotypical, rugged no nonsense men and cricketers who need to hook up with an English alleged actress before they become all modern and metrosexual. Indeed of late they have needed a robust sense of humour for anything connected to their cricket team.

But most of all this is the nation that came to our aid in two world wars and did great service, especially at Gallipoli. 'Ah my good man,' said an English officer on seeing an Aussie trooper 'have you come to die?' 'No', said the antipodean 'I came yesterdie.'

Happily bloggers don't have to worry about doing accents. Tomorrow: my impression of Dame Edna.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

I'm Mandy, Try Me!




Watch the above and glory in schadenfreude. But as you do so remember this. The former Dark Prince of Spin, Lord of many titles and Minister for Everything came back to these shores and was imposed on us by a desperate Gordon Brown. He did so unelected. The same thing is now happening in Italy and Greece but at the behest of Europe. The Dark Prince is one of them as an ex EU Commissioner. Had Britain taken his advice and joined the Euro, Brussels would even now be imposing their solutions on this country too. Mandy would probably be readying himself to be our next prime minister and the first one to rule from the House of Lords in a century.

Monday, 14 November 2011

APEC not EU


Barack Obama went to Hawaii over the last few days, looking west as he and his country will increasingly do in the future and put together a free trade deal for the Pacific which, he hopes, will boost investment, exports and consequently jobs for all. It's a good plan and may even work in the long term, albeit probably too late to make any material difference to his electoral prospects which now hinge on whichever forgetful fruitcake wins the Republican nomination.

Note however that this trade deal is not, so far as I know, proposing vast and undemocratic bureaucracy to oversee it, regulate it and hand down reams and reams of laws to harmonise trade in its constituent members. Note that there is no proposal for a parliament, for a court of justice, a common foreign policy, a president and for qualified majority voting to force through change. There is no call for a common currency to facilitate trade, this is probably and rightly seen as unnecessary and several steps too far.

So why then do Obama and his administration continue to think that this is the right approach for Europe? How is our continent any less disparate and diverse than those that have the Pacific in common? Why is it that what started as a free trade agreement (or common market) became the vast, unwieldy beast that is the EU working towards ever closer union and refusing to ask the peoples of Europe what they think? Is it just a make work scheme for politicians? It's hard to see why the EU became necessary when it started out as another APEC.

But, as I say, APEC is a good idea. It is, or ought to be the way forward for the whole world. Trade is what drives prosperity. It can do more than that. It can even drive peace and freedom. But what it cannot do is homogenise an entire continent and erase centuries of cultural and racial differences. Neither should it. If the EU had stuck to the idea of a common market and given entry to that market to countries that are free and democratic it would have been the force for good that politicians claim. Instead it has become a monolith that threatens peace and prosperity and sets countries against each other.

The APEC/EEC is the model we should all adopt for the whole world contingent on freedom and democracy. Come and trade with us, sell things to us and buy our goods and services in return. The price? Respect for human rights and democracy. Instead the EU has actually started imposing governments on countries that don't do as they are told. How did it all go so wrong?

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Remember


At the going down of the Sun, 
And in the morning, 
We will remember them.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Democracy or Dictatorship?


 The current crisis afflicting the world and centred on Europe is causing all kinds of people, and not just shameless opportunists and fantasists like the leader of the Labour Party, to question some of the basic tenets of our comfortable western world. Is this a failure of capitalism? Is democracy itself failing?

Certainly we are seeing all the flaws of the latter, as the political pygmies who lead us struggle to come to terms with the crisis. When you are accustomed to ruling by spin and focus groups, a real existential crisis which questions the fundamentals of all that you have grown upwith is a challenge too far. Under such circumstances it is easy to see the appeal for the political class of a kind of benign dictator  who would ride roughshod over popular opinion and do what had to be done to sort things out before heading off to retirement  where he or she would be revered and villified in equal measure according to taste. Think Margaret Thatcher without the landslides.

I actually experience a little of what this feels like on a daily basis being as I am a Tory living in Hackney, East London - the heartland of Metropolitan delusions otherwise known as socialism. It's an admission that tends to be greeted with incredulity and sometimes hostility, especially when I express admiration for Mrs T and all or most of her doings.

And yet what we are seeing in Greece and possibly soon in Italy is precisely this scenario. The political elite of Europe, operating in a vacuum and a crisis of its own making, is pushing through policies for which they have no mandate whatsoever because the alternative is too catastrophic to contemplate at least by them.

It's rather like if I were to mount a coup tomorrow here in Britain, seize power and immediately start implementing a wish list of policies which I regard as vital. I might for instance wish to abolish the NHS in its present form because it is hopeless, unwieldy and inefficient and put in place instead a social insurance scheme with all GPs, clinics and hospitals immediately privatised. I might abolish unemployment by insisting that all benefit claimants have to work in the community or similar in order to earn their money. I would probably withdraw Britain from the ECHR, cut income and corporation tax with immediate effect whilst cracking down on the likes of Google and Phillip Green and their tax dodging. I might wish to announce the suspension of all immigration and asylum applications until a new, more robust and half competent system was in place and the backlog cleared. I could abolish all government subsidy for wind turbines and abandon as unworkable, pointless and unachievable all targets for cutting CO2 emissions. I would probably cut our foreign aid budget by 90%, announce root and branch reform of the entire civil service since it repeatedly shows itself to be incompetent to a criminal level in everything from basic administration to procurement. I would almost certainly and with a great deal of glee abolish most quangos and see how the world miraculously manages to get by without their advice and interference, force all local authorities to cut administration costs by 50% and cut all of those non jobs of which they are so fond whilst abolishing all local education authorities by directly funding all schools and enabling them to buy in the services they need from whomever they choose. I would offer grants on a sliding scale for students going into tertiary education according to how well they did in their A Levels and stop unions from calling strikes unless they have the support of 50% of members (note that strikes would still be allowed as this is a benign dictatorship).

You might wonder why my wish list (it is by no means exhaustive) has not included our immediate withdrawal from the EU. The answer is we wouldn't have to. We would be thrown out for being undemocratic because I had grabbed power in a coup. No, really. According to the EU there are good coups and bad coups and anything that is anti them is clearly bad.



But I could make a convincing argument that all of the above is necessary and indeed essential for the future health and prosperity of this country and that democracy is actually failing us by impeding and slowing down the process of change and reform.

The trouble is of course that many would vociferously and possibly violently disagree with me. I would be viciously caricatured in newspapers and lefties would wait to dance on my grave. Many would try to put me into it early. There would almost certainly be Nazi comparisons and a campsite full of self righteous, angry protesters the size of Greater London. Because democracy is messy. Then again so is totalitarianism. People tend not to agree about solutions. They often, as we saw with the riots in August and with the present problems with the Euro, don't even agree on what the problem is in the first place.

But the problem is not with democracy itself, which is the least worst option for governing as Churchill pointed out. The problem is that, like capitalism, democracy has evolved into the broken, fractured, dishonest system we see across the western world, dominated by a political class and vested interests. We have politicians who lie to us, try to bribe us with our own money and the money of future generations, refuse to answer awkward questions and then claim mandates that don't exist. We have parliamentary systems that shut out the people based on specious arguments about parliamentary sovereignty and which can pass treaties and even change whole governments without consultation.

The consequence is de facto dictatorships, whether benign or not depends on your point of view and your membership of the self selecting and self perpetuating political class.

The last Labour government with its reliance on bland and meaningless soundbites and news management was the political class at its most cynical and most destructive. It is this style of government which has created the debt ridden societies gorged on promises that we can no longer pay for. And it is this kind of government which creates leaders who cannot lead necessitating the suspension of democracy for fear of actually asking people what they think. This is not a failure of democracy because we do not have democracy. We have elective dictatorships based on lies and fantasy, a fantasy that is now turning into a nightmare. If we're lucky we will be rescued from disaster by a leader who has the vision and charisma to lead us into a brighter dawn and the guts to be honest about the tough choices that face us. History teaches us however that all too often the type of leader who emerges is one who divides and rules and brings out our worst instincts.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Rome Surrenders


Do you remember, back in the dark days of Gordon Brown's government, when he had reached his nadir and was desperate for something, anything to save himself? What was his response? This unelected prime minister called his old friend and enemy Peter Mandelson, then luxuriating on a high salary in Brussels and asked him to come back to save him. Mandelson was made a peer and installed in the powerful trade and industry department but also became Brown's fixer. Of course this was a task beyond even the dark prince's abilities but he did his machiavellian best and often riled the Tories. He may even have been partly responsible for the fact we must now endure the Lib Dems in government.

This however was a travesty. Democracy? Accountability? They all go out the window when governments are in trouble.

Now look at Italy which is about to go one worse. The people of that benighted country are about to have installed, not as a mere minister but a prime minister a man who will be installed unelected in their equivalent of the House of Lords because he is seen as a man acceptable to foreign powers worried about their beloved Euro. The people of Italy get no say, even if they will be relieved to see the back of Silvio Berlusconi. For the second time in less than a fortnight, back room deals are being cobbled together to decide the leadership of a sovereign country which is acceptable to Germany and France. How much longer are the peoples of Europe expected to put up with technocratic rule and a democratic deficit as wide as the fiscal one this state of affairs is supposed to be curing? Europe came into being thanks to the Treaty of Rome. Little did they know it would turn out to be every bit as scandalous a document as the one signed in Versailles.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Euro End Game


Last week, in a rare outbreak of honesty, President Sarkozy, frustrated at his inability to grandstand and save the world at the pointless G20 summit, admitted that Greece should never have been allowed to join the Euro. I wonder if, in the coming days, he will make the same admission about Italy. Of course, if and when that time comes, it may well be beyond the point of no return anyway. By then the Euro may be in its final death throes.

There is talk today, since denied, that some are discussing a smaller Eurozone - effectively an admission that their beloved currency cannot survive in its current form and that the inner core may well be all that is viable. If these discussions are taking place we should actually be encouraged. It might mean that the honesty is spreading, at least in private, and that reality is finally dawning on Europe's inept leadership.

But we shouldn't bet on this. The reason this crisis keeps getting worse and the contagion spreading is because those leaders have no idea what to do. Or at least they have no idea of what to do which will be politically sellable and enables the Euro to survive. The two are incompatible. That is why we keep getting these unconvincing deals, ever bigger bailouts - more and more borrowing to cure a debt problem.

Now at last that process may be coming to the sticky end for which it was always destined. Italy, the next and biggest domino, is wobbling and preparing to fall. Sticking plasters will not solve this one. It's time for a reality check that should have happened 18 months ago. The only remaining question is will Europe's leaders get honest with themselves and us to stop this all happening in a disorderly and destructive way. Don't bet on that either.

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Wrong Consensus


It is a peculiarity of politics that a national government is seen as preferable to an election or a referendum and indeed a legitimate means of pushing through measures that the populace is clearly against. But that's the EU for you. At some point the reality of public opposition will have to be acknowledged and embraced.

The great irony is that all of those supposedly sophisticated politicians setting their face against the public will are wrong. The answer for Greece is not more bailouts and to stay in the Euro. That is the answer for Europe's political elite and the banks who don't want to lose their money after making a bad bet. The only way for Greece to grow is to leave the Euro, default on their debt and to start selling things to the rest of the world in a new currency. This will be the outcome eventually. What a pity a national government is incapable of acting in the national interest.

Bandwagon Politics


Is it too late to suggest a new sport for next year's Olympics? If only the awarded medals for bandwagon jumping we would have a ready made winner in the leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition.

This weekend Forrest, a little late to the party because being on time would require leadership, has jumped on to the Occupy bandwagon and is adopting some of the language of these fantasists and attention seekers. In yesterday's Observer he told us that politicians should listen to the St Paul's protesters, apparently believing that this bunch of misfits, new age Trotskyites and dropouts really do speak for the 99% who have been watching on, if only because the BBC seems to think that this is news.

The values of the protesters are something we should all take on board apparently. What values would those be? The preening narcissism of professional protesters who jump on every bandwagon, know how to get maximum exposure but don't have any actual answers for the ills they see? You can see why that would appeal to the policy lite leader of the Labour Party.

But what is it about this bunch of new age hippies that so appeals to the left and to our more gullible news organisations? Do they really think that this is a popular movement? It seems that they do. They seem to be protesting about banks and capitalism which is why they have got their publicity. But it's all so incoherent and nebulous, a 21st century equivalent of the 1960s peace movement but on a vastly smaller scale. It can only be a matter of time before a pop star, perhaps one whose career is fading and wants to look down with the kids, marries a Japanese 'artist', grow his hair and has a bed in demanding that the world stops being so beastly and unfair.

Because that is the crux of what these protesters and now Forrest are saying. The world is not a nice place and some people don't always get what they deserve and others earn vastly more than others. And they seem to think that this is a situation that is unique to banks and big corporations, that capitalism is to blame and that their camping in a square and defecating in a cathedral is the start of a movement that will magically transform the human race into an altruistic and selfless species working for the betterment of all.

Because ultimately it is not capitalism that they are angry about, it is human nature. Selfishness and greed are human traits that civilisation and the rule of law take the edges off. Nobody ever said it was perfect. It's just the least worst option.

And yes some people do better than others and reward themselves more than they strictly deserve. But is this really something restricted to banks and big corporations? What about pop stars and footballers? Is this a protest about them? What about entrepreneurs like Richard Branson? What about inventors like James Dyson? What about Susan Boyle? Should she hand back her millions? Oh and what about those who win 160 million on Euromillions. How fair is that? Why is it okay for them to be rolling in it but not for bankers and stockbrokers?

And you see selfishness and vested interests are all around us. They are not just restricted to the rich and privileged. Why is it okay for public sector workers to go on strike to protect their pensions and earlier retirement ages subsidised by the rest of us? Why is it okay that London tube drivers can hold the capital to ransom and supplement their already generous wages so as to guarantee a strike free Olympics next year? Is it okay that thousands of our fellow citizens routinely cheat the benefits system and get a free ride paid for by the law abiding? Is it okay that the elderly can demand free health care as they become infirm and yet refuse to sell their expensive homes to help pay for it? Is it okay that people have children they cannot afford paid for by the state when those who work for a living have to save up and wait to do the same thing? Is it okay that men can father multiple children and never take responsibility for them? Is it okay that Europe's politicians are forcing austerity on millions rather than admit that the Euro is broken and has been a catastrophic mistake? Is it okay that we have professional protesters who go from one campsite to the next, never working, never earning a living, leaching off the rest of us and angrily demanding change when they have no real stake in the society they so abhor?

The fact that Forrest has identified himself with these fantasists, while of course trying to have it both ways by distancing himself from some of their more extreme or deranged demands says everything you need to know about him and the state of our politics. But it is a symptom of the human state. He has seen an opportunity and is trying to harness it for his own ends. He is behaving in other words like a capitalist. The great irony is that politics is more ruthless than capitalism could ever hope to be. It is almost always terribly unfair and grossly unreasonable, rewarding the most cynical and unprincipled who then pose as the exact opposite. You only have to look at the last three leaders of the Labour Party. But try telling that to union leaders and bandwagon jumping leaders trying to make a name for themselves.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Scientific Heresy

Scientific Heresy
Matt Ridley
Angus Millar Lecture of the Royal Society of the Arts
Edinburgh, 31 October 2011

IT is a great honour to be asked to deliver the Angus Millar lecture. I have no
idea whether Angus Millar ever saw himself as a heretic, but I have a soft
spot for heresy. One of my ancestral relations, Nicholas Ridley the Oxford
martyr, was burned at the stake for heresy.

My topic today is scientific heresy. When are scientific heretics right and
when are they mad? How do you tell the difference between science and pseudoscience?
Let us run through some issues, starting with the easy ones.
- Astronomy is a science; astrology is a pseudoscience.
- Evolution is science; creationism is pseudoscience.
- Molecular biology is science; homeopathy is pseudoscience.
- Vaccination is science; the MMR scare is pseudoscience.
- Oxygen is science; phlogiston was pseudoscience.
- Chemistry is science; alchemy was pseudoscience.

Are you with me so far? A few more examples. That the earl of Oxford
wrote Shakespeare is pseudoscience. So are the beliefs that Elvis is still alive,
Diana was killed by MI5, JFK was killed by the CIA, 9/11 was an inside job. So
are ghosts, UFOs, telepathy, the Loch Ness monster and pretty well everything
to do with the paranormal. Sorry to say that on Halloween, but that’s my
opinion.

Three more controversial ones. In my view, most of what Freud said was
pseudoscience. So is quite a lot, though not all, of the argument for organic
farming. So, in a sense by definition, is religious faith. It explicitly claims
that there are truths that can be found by other means than observation and
experiment.

Now comes one that gave me an epiphany: crop circles. It was blindingly
obvious to me that crop circles were likely to be man-made when I first starting
investigating this phenomenon. I made some myself to prove it was easy to do.

This was long before Doug Bower and Dave Chorley ’fessed up to having started
the whole craze after a night at the pub. Every other explanation – ley lines,
alien spacecraft, plasma vortices, ball lightning – was balderdash. The entire
field of ‘cereology’ was pseudoscience, as the slightest brush with its bizarre
practitioners easily demonstrated.

Imagine my surprise then when I found I was the heretic and that serious
journalists working not for tabloids but for Science magazine, and for a Channel
4 documentary team, swallowed the argument of the cereologists that it was
highly implausible that crop circles were all man-made.

So I learnt lesson number 1: the stunning gullibility of the media. Put an
‘ology’after your pseudoscience and you can get journalists to be your propagandists.
A Channel 4 team did the obvious thing – they got a group of students to
make some crop circles and then asked the cereologist if they were ‘genuine’or
‘hoaxed’, i.e. man made. He assured them they could not have been made
by people. So they told him they had been made the night before. The man
was poleaxed. It made great television. Yet the producer, who later became a
government minister under Tony Blair, ended the segment of the programme by
taking the cereologists’ side: ‘of course, not all crop circles are hoaxes’. What?
The same happened when Doug and Dave owned up; everybody just went on
believing. They still do.

Lesson number 2: debunking is like water off a duck’s back to pseudoscience.
In medicine, I began to realize, the distinction between science and pseudoscience
is not always easy. This is beautifully illustrated in an extraordinary
novel by Rebecca Abrams, called Touching Distance, based on the real story of
an eighteenth century medical heretic, Alec Gordon of Aberdeen.
Gordon was a true pioneer of the idea that childbed fever was spread by
medical folk like himself and that hygiene was the solution to it. He hit upon
this discovery long before Semelweiss and Lister. But he was ignored. Yet
Abrams’ novel does not paint him purely as a rational hero, but as a flawed
human being, a neglectful husband and a crank with some odd ideas such as a
dangerous obsession with bleeding his sick patients. He was a pseudoscientist
one minute and scientist the next.

Lesson number 3. We can all be both. Newton was an alchemist.
Like antisepsis, many scientific truths began as heresies and fought long
battles for acceptance against entrenched establishment wisdom that now appears
irrational: continental drift, for example. Barry Marshall was not just
ignored but vilified when he first argued that stomach ulcers are caused by a
particular bacterium. Antacid drugs were very profitable for the drug industry.
Eventually he won the Nobel prize.
Just this month Daniel Shechtman won the Nobel prize for quasicrystals,
having spent much of his career being vilified and exiled as a crank. ‘I was
thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with

what I was saying.’

That’s lesson number 4: the heretic is sometimes right.
What sustains pseudoscience is confirmation bias. We look for and welcome
the evidence that fits our pet theory; we ignore or question the evidence
that contradicts it. We all do this all the time. It’s not, as we often assume,
something that only our opponents indulge in. I do it, you do it, it takes a
superhuman effort not to do it. That is what keeps myths alive, sustains conspiracy
theories and keeps whole populations in thrall to strange superstitions.
Bertrand Russell pointed this out many years ago: ‘If a man is offered a
fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the
evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand,
he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his
instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.’

Lesson number 5: keep a sharp eye out for confirmation bias in yourself
and others.
There have been some very good books on this recently. Michael Shermer’s
The Believing Brain, Dan Gardner’s Future Babble and Tim Harford’s Adapt are
explorations of the power of confirmation bias. And what I find most unsettling
of all is Gardner’s conclusion that knowledge is no defence against it; indeed,
the more you know, the more you fall for confirmation bias. Expertise gives
you the tools to seek out the confirmations you need to buttress your beliefs.
Experts are worse at forecasting the future than non-experts. Philip Tetlock
did the definitive experiment. He gathered a sample of 284 experts – political
scientists, economists and journalists – and harvested 27,450 different specific
judgments from them about the future then waited to see if they came true.
The results were terrible. The experts were no better than ‘a dart-throwing
chimpanzee’.

Here’s what the Club of Rome said on the rear cover of the massive bestseller
Limits to Growth in 1972:
Will this be the world that your grandchildren will thank you for?
A world where industrial production has sunk to zero. Where population
has suffered a catastrophic decline. Where the air, sea and
land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant
memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts.
‘Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts’, said Richard Feynman.

Lesson 6. Never rely on the consensus of experts about the future. Experts are
worth listening to about the past, but not the future. Futurology is pseudoscience.
USing these six lessons, I am now going to plunge into an issue on which
almost all the experts are not only confident they can predict the future,
but absolutely certain their opponents are pseudoscientists. It is an issue on

which I am now a heretic. I think the establishment view is infested with
pseudoscience. The issue is climate change.

Now before you all rush for the exits, and I know it is traditional to walk out
on speakers who do not toe the line on climate at the RSA – I saw it happen to
Bjorn Lomborg last year when he gave the Prince Philip lecture – let me be quite
clear. I am not a ‘denier’. I fully accept that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse
gas, the climate has been warming and that man is very likely to be at least
partly responsible. When a study was published recently saying that 98% of
scientists ‘believe’ in global warming, I looked at the questions they had been
asked and realized I was in the 98%, too, by that definition, though I never use
the word ‘believe’ about myself. Likewise the recent study from Berkeley, which
concluded that the land surface of the continents has indeed been warming at
about the rate people thought, changed nothing.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that you can accept all the basic
tenets of greenhouse physics and still conclude that the threat of a dangerously
large warming is so improbable as to be negligible, while the threat of real
harm from climate-mitigation policies is already so high as to be worrying, that
the cure is proving far worse than the disease is ever likely to be. Or as I put it
once, we may be putting a tourniquet round our necks to stop a nosebleed.
I also think the climate debate is a massive distraction from much more
urgent environmental problems like invasive species and overfishing.

I was not always such a ‘lukewarmer’. In the mid 2000s one image in particular
played a big role in making me abandon my doubts about dangerous
man-made climate change: the hockey stick. It clearly showed that something
unprecedented was happening. I can remember where I first saw it at a conference
and how I thought: aha, now there at last is some really clear data
showing that today’s temperatures are unprecedented in both magnitude and
rate of change – and it has been published in Nature magazine.

Yet it has been utterly debunked by the work of Steve McIntyre and Ross
McKitrick. I urge you to read Andrew Montford’s careful and highly readable
book The Hockey Stick Illusion. Here is not the place to go into detail, but
briefly the problem is both mathematical and empirical. The graph relies heavily
on some flawed data – strip-bark tree rings from bristlecone pines – and on a
particular method of principal component analysis, called short centering, that
heavily weights any hockey-stick shaped sample at the expense of any other
sample. When I say heavily – I mean 390 times.

This had a big impact on me. This was the moment somebody told me
they had made the crop circle the night before. For, apart from the hockey
stick, there is no evidence that climate is changing dangerously or faster than
in the past, when it changed naturally. It was warmer in the Middle Ages and
medieval climate change in Greenland was much faster.

Stalagmites, tree lines and ice cores all confirm that it was significantly
warmer 7000 years ago. Evidence from Greenland suggests that the Arctic
ocean was probably ice free for part of the late summer at that time. Sea level

is rising at the unthreatening rate about a foot per century and decelerating.
Greenland is losing ice at the rate of about 150 gigatonnes a year, which is 0.6%
per century. There has been no significant warming in Antarctica, with the
exception of the peninsula. Methane has largely stopped increasing. Tropical
storm intensity and frequency have gone down, not up, in the last 20 years.
Your probability of dying as a result of a drought, a flood or a storm is 98%
lower globally than it was in the 1920s. Malaria has retreated not expanded as
the world has warmed.

And so on. I’ve looked and looked but I cannot find one piece of data –
as opposed to a model – that shows either unprecedented change or change is
that is anywhere close to causing real harm.

No doubt, there will be plenty of people thinking ‘what about x?’ Well, if
you have an x that persuades you that rapid and dangerous climate change
is on the way, tell me about it. When I asked a senior government scientist
this question, he replied with the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. That
is to say, a poorly understood hot episode, 55 million years ago, of uncertain
duration, uncertain magnitude and uncertain cause.

Meanwhile, I see confirmation bias everywhere in the climate debate. Hurricane
Katrina, Mount Kilimanjaro, the extinction of golden toads – all cited
wrongly as evidence of climate change. A snowy December, the BBC lectures
us, is ‘just weather’; a flood in Pakistan or a drought in Texas is ‘the sort of
weather we can expect more of’. A theory so flexible it can rationalize any
outcome is a pseudoscientific theory.

To see confirmation bias in action, you only have to read the Climategate
emails, documents that have undermined my faith in this country’s scientific
institutions. It is bad enough that the emails unambiguously showed scientists
plotting to cherry-pick data, subvert peer review, bully editors and evade
freedom of information requests. What’s worse, to a science groupie like me,
is that so much of the rest of the scientific community seemed OK with that.
They essentially shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘Yeah, big deal, boys will be
boys’.

Nor is there even any theoretical support for a dangerous future. The central
issue is ‘sensitivity’: the amount of warming that you can expect from a
doubling of carbon dioxide levels. On this, there is something close to consensus
– at first. It is 1.2 degrees centigrade. Here’s how the IPCC put it in its
latest report.

‘In the idealised situation that the climate response to a doubling of atmospheric
CO2 consisted of a uniform temperature change only, with no feedbacks
operating. . . the global warming from GCMs would be around 1.2◦C.’
Paragraph 8.6.2.3.

Now the paragraph goes on to argue that large, net positive feedbacks,
mostly from water vapour, are likely to amplify this. But whereas there is
good consensus about the 1.2◦C, there is absolutely no consensus about the
net positive feedback, as the IPCC also admits. Water vapour forms clouds

and whether clouds in practice amplify or dampen any greenhouse warming
remains in doubt.

So to say there is a consensus about some global warming is true; to say
there is a consensus about dangerous global warming is false.
The sensitivity of the climate could be a harmless 1.2◦C, half of which has
already been experienced, or it could be less if feedbacks are negative or it
could be more if feedbacks are positive. What does the empirical evidence say?
Since 1960 we have had roughly one-third of a doubling, so we must have
had almost half of the greenhouse warming expected from a doubling – that’s
elementary arithmetic, given that the curve is agreed to be logarithmic. Yet if
you believe the surface thermometers (the red and green lines), we have had
about 0.6◦C of warming in that time, at the rate of less than 0.13◦C per decade
– somewhat less if you believe the satellite thermometers (the blue and purple
lines).


So we are on track for 1.2◦C. We are on the blue line, not the red line.
Remember Jim Hansen of NASA told us in 1988 to expect 2–4 degrees in
25 years. We are experiencing about one-tenth of that. We are below even the
zero-emission path expected by the IPCC in 1990.

Ah, says the consensus, sulphur pollution has reduced the warming, delaying
the impact, or the ocean has absorbed the extra heat. Neither of these
post-hoc rationalisations fit the data: the southern hemisphere has warmed
about half as fast as the northern in the last 30 years, yet the majority of the
sulphur emissions were in the northern hemisphere.

And ocean heat content has decelerated, if not flattened, in the past decade.
By contrast, many heretical arguments seem to me to be paragons of science
as it should be done: transparent, questioning and testable.

For instance, earlier this year, a tenacious British mathematician named Nic
Lewis started looking into the question of sensitivity and found that the only
wholly empirical estimate of sensitivity cited by the IPCC had been put through
an illegitimate statistical procedure which effectively fattened its tail on the
upward end – it hugely increased the apparent probability of high warming at
the expense of low warming. When this is corrected, the theoretical probability
of warming greater than 2.3◦C is very low indeed. Like all the other errors in
the IPCC report, including the infamous suggestion that all Himalayan glaciers
would be gone by 2035 rather than 2350, this mistake exaggerates the potential
warming. It is beyond coincidence that all these errors should be in the
same direction. The source for the Himalayan glacier mistake was a non-peer
reviewed WWF report and it occurred in a chapter, two of whose coordinating
lead authors and a review editor were on WWF’s climate witness scientific advisory
panel. Remember too that the glacier error was pointed out by reviewers,
who were ignored, and that Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, dismissed
the objectors as practitioners of ‘voodoo science’.

Journalists are fond of saying that the IPCC report is based solely on the
peer-reviewed literature. Rajendra Pachauri himself made that claim in 2008,
saying:

. . .we carry out an assessment of climate change based on peer reviewed
literature, so everything that we look at and take into
account in our assessments has to carry [the] credibility of peerreviewed
publications, we don’t settle for anything less than that.

That’s a voodoo claim. The glacier claim was not peer reviewed; nor was
the alteration to the sensitivity function Lewis spotted. The journalist Donna
Laframboise got volunteers all over the world to help her count the times the
IPCC used non-peer reviewed literature. Her conclusion is that: ‘Of the 18,531
references in the 2007 Climate Bible we found 5,587 – a full 30% – to be non
peer-reviewed.’

Yet even to say things like this is to commit heresy. To stand up and say,
within a university or within the BBC, that you do not think global warming
is dangerous gets you the sort of reaction that standing up in the Vatican and
saying you don’t think God is good would get. Believe me, I have tried it.
Does it matter? Suppose I am right that much of what passes for mainstream
climate science is now infested with pseudoscience, buttressed by a bad
case of confirmation bias, reliant on wishful thinking, given a free pass by biased
reporting and dogmatically intolerant of dissent. So what?
After all there’s pseudoscience and confirmation bias among the climate
heretics too.

Well here’s why it matters. The alarmists have been handed power over
our lives; the heretics have not. Remember Britain’s unilateral Climate Change
Act is officially expected to cost the hard-pressed UK economy £18.3 billion a
year for the next 39 years and achieve an unmeasurably small change in carbon
dioxide levels.

At least sceptics do not cover the hills of Scotland with useless, expensive,
duke-subsidising wind turbines whose manufacture causes pollution in Inner
Mongolia and which kill rare raptors such as this griffon vulture.
At least crop circle believers cannot almost double your electricity bills and
increase fuel poverty while driving jobs to Asia, to support their fetish.
At least creationists have not persuaded the BBC that balanced reporting is
no longer necessary.
At least homeopaths have not made expensive condensing boilers, which
shut down in cold weather, compulsory, as John Prescott did in 2005.
At least astrologers have not driven millions of people into real hunger,
perhaps killing 192,000 last year according to one conservative estimate, by
diverting 5% of the world’s grain crop into motor fuel.

That’s why it matters. We’ve been asked to take some very painful cures.
So we need to be sure the patient has a brain tumour rather than a nosebleed.
Handing the reins of power to pseudoscience has an unhappy history. Remember
eugenics. Around 1910 the vast majority of scientists and other intellectuals
agreed that nationalizing reproductive decisions so as to stop poor,

disabled and stupid people from having babies was not just a practical but a
moral imperative of great urgency.

‘There is now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact’, said George
Bernard Shaw, ‘that nothing but a eugenics religion can save our civilization
from the fate that has overtaken all previous civilizations.’ By the skin of its
teeth, mainly because of a brave Liberal MP called Josiah Wedgwood, Britain
never handed legal power to the eugenics movement. Germany did.
Or remember Trofim Lysenko, a pseudoscientific crank with a strange idea
that crops could be trained to do what you wanted and that Mendelian genetics
was bunk. His ideas became the official scientific religion of the Soviet Union
and killed millions; his critics, such as the geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, ended up
dead in prison.

Am I going too far in making these comparisons? I don’t think so. James
Hansen of NASA says oil firm executives should be tried for crimes against
humanity. (Remember this is the man who is in charge of one of the supposedly
impartial data sets about global temperatures.) John Beddington, Britain’s
chief scientific adviser, said this year that just as we are ‘grossly intolerant of
racism’, so we should also be ‘grossly intolerant of pseudoscience’, in which he
included all forms of climate-change scepticism.

The irony of course is that much of the green movement began as heretical
dissent. Greenpeace went from demanding that the orthodox view of genetically
modified crops be challenged, and that the Royal Society was not to be
trusted, to demanding that heresy on climate change be ignored and the Royal
Society could not be wrong.

Talking of Greenpeace, did you know that the collective annual budget of
Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth was more than a billion dollars
globally last year? People sometimes ask me what’s the incentive for scientists
to exaggerate climate change. But look at the sums of money available to
those who do so, from the pressure groups, from governments and from big
companies. It was not the sceptics who hired an ex News of the World deputy
editor as a spin doctor after Climategate, it was the University of East Anglia.
By contrast scientists and most mainstream journalists risk their careers
if they take a skeptical line, so dogmatic is the consensus view. It is left to
the blogosphere to keep the flame of heresy alive and do the investigative reporting
the media has forgotten how to do. In America, Anthony Watts who
crowd-sourced the errors in the siting of thermometers and runs wattsupwiththat.
com; in Canada, Steve McIntyre, the mathematician who bit by bit exposed
the shocking story of the hockey stick and runs climateaudit.org; here in
Britain, Andrew Montford, who dissected the shenanigans behind the Climategate
whitewash enquiries and runs bishop-hill.net; iIn Australia, Joanne Nova,
the former television science presenter who has pieced together the enormous
sums of money that go to support vested interests in alarm, and runs joannenova.
com.au.

The remarkable thing about the heretics I have mentioned is that every

single one is doing this in his or her spare time. They work for themselves,
they earn a pittance from this work. There is no great fossil-fuel slush fund for
sceptics.

In conclusion, I’ve spent a lot of time on climate, but it could have been
dietary fat, or nature and nurture. My argument is that like religion, science
as an institution is and always has been plagued by the temptations of confirmation
bias. With alarming ease it morphs into pseudoscience even – perhaps
especially – in the hands of elite experts and especially when predicting the
future and when there’s lavish funding at stake. It needs heretics.

Thank you very much for listening.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Britannia Waives the Rules



Three items of news today and yesterday, two of them related but all of which illustrate starkly how incompetent officialdom can be. First it was revealed yesterday that the UK Borders Agency has lost 124,000 people who came to this country, applied for asylum and then disappeared into a kind of administrative never never land, which is essentially an unofficial sanction for permanent residence.

Then today it seems that that same agency, unable to cope with the numbers of people travelling legally through our busiest airport last summer, adopted the expedient approach of stopping any checks which might weed out those doing so illegally. When you consider that during this time this country was at high alert from the supposed terrorist threat is this not a dereliction of duty at least?




Finally today we see that awful crash on the M5 in Somerset. What's the connection? Well it seems likely that a contributary factor to the accident was smoke from a nearby bonfire and fireworks display. Remember a few months ago when the M1 in London was closed for several days after a fire under an elevated section caused by the storage of highly flammable and explosive gas canisters.

We often tell ourselves that we live in a society obsessed by health and safety. Yet those who insist on those cones warning us of slippery floors and force on to training courses on how to use a ladder overlook the real health and safety issues close to motorways. What else are they missing whilst banning children from playing conkers?

And more to the point, why is that our various agencies and the civil service in general is so hopeless? Remember these are the people going on strike later this month to protect their golden pensions paid for by the rest of us. Yet our taxes are frequently miscalculated, our Jobcentres are staffed by incompetents who don't deserve jobs themselves, IT projects go massively over budget and then get abandoned, defence cannot provide protective equipment to our soldiers and similarly cannot manage massive projects at the cutting edge, the Borders Agency has no idea where 100,000 it actually knows about are not to mention those who sneaked in and Health and Safety is only good at preventing those risks which aren't really risks whilst allowing explosive materials and bonfires near to our motorway network. The next time the government is looking for things to cut perhaps they should just abolish whole departments that don't actually seem to be accomplishing very much.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Time For Eurosceptics to Flirt With UKIP


Given the recent problems with the EU and the Euro, the denial by our political class of a referendum both for this country and for Greece who for one moment of madness considered consulting the poor sods who are suffering most for this mess, it is no surprise to learn that UKIP is riding high in the polls. One can't help wondering however if the party would be doing much better and causing real problems to the established parties if they didn't look so odd. It is a party in dire need of a makeover and, for all of the success of Nigel Farrage, a leader who can connect with the British people and speak for them as their feelings about Europe are routinely ignored.

We may be at a turning point in the whole EU story. This government, for all of its claims of scepticism, is nevertheless seriously proposing that we prop it up with money via the IMF. It's apparently not enough that Greece is being impoverished on the altar of monerary union, now we most send billions down the drain, billions we are shaving off our own public spending, so that we can prop up a currency we had the good sense (thanks to public resistance) to stay out of.

We need some political bravery right now. It doesn't look as though it is going to come from David Cameron hiding behind the convenient excuse of the Lib Dems. So Conservative MPs need to become more assertive and draw a line in the sand or threaten not only to vote against further good money being sent after bad but to threaten bringing down the government by decamping to UKIP. It's that serious. It's the only way we can avoid following the EU's leaders into depression and conflict on a 1930s scale.

It is not in our interests to prop up the broken Euro and it isn't in Europe's interests either. Since plucky but impecunious Greece does not have the firepower, it falls to the UK to be the bad guys once again. They'll probably never thank us or admit that we were right all along, but it is the only way that our continent can be saved from the sclerotic embrace of Brussels.

UKIP is not currently seen as a serious political party but it could and should be. If the Greens through the ridiculous Caroline Lucas can be taken seriously then why not a party that speaks for a majority of the British people? The issue of the EU is a burning one, precisely because our political class has conspired for 30 years to prevent it from being. Now is our opportunity to demand change and our say.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

More EU Threats


More threats and bluster coming from Brussels in the direction of Athens as they react with their usual to anyone who steps out of line with regard to the EU's blanket ban on democracy. The Commission has this afternoon claimed that Greece cannot leave the Euro and remain part of the EU. This will come as news to many or indeed most, especially those of us who are not part of this club of insanity. It seems we don't need an in out referendum at all, we're already out.

Perhaps all of these threats and less than subtle bullying is an attempt to impress the Chinese who are attending the G20 and appear reluctant to lend their trillions to we feckless Europeans. Why not lend to us, look how tough we are with dissenters and those who try to derail the progress of the people's project by consulting the people.

Widde's Quiz Show


I have disturbing news. Anne Widdecombe has been given her own television show for reasons that will baffle all those who find this shrieking harridan a national embarrassment. I don't watch Strictly and so maybe I'm wrong, but didn't she become a national laughing stock when she flopped and lolloped around the dance floor on that show last year? Were we laughing with her or at her? In my case, I was avoiding watching it like the plague just as I do every year. But the presence of this unwelcome throwback to the worst instincts of the Conservative Party was added incentive to steer clear of Saturday evening's alleged entertainment. 

Television producers have now apparently decided that Doris Karloff is a national treasure and will present a quiz show. Recordings start later this month. So if you fancy being shrieked at by a right wing, freakish,  Catholic convert for your lack of general knowledge then why not apply to be a contestant or to be in the audience. Such shows are usually attended by OAPs with nothing better to do. Now they are presented by them.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

PMQs 2nd November 2011 - The Gesture Politics Edition


I'm afraid I'm going to have to continue my political class theme from last week because things are getting no better. Dave continues not to answer questions, Forrest continues to play opportunist bandwagon jumping politics and his nodding attack dog of a shadow chancellor tries to wind up the prime minister often successfully. At a time however when the world is on the edge of an economic catastrophe, when democracy itself is in danger in Greece the mother of parliaments looked ridiculous and irrelevant.

Balls has added to his pudgy faced nodding repertoire an increasing number of gestures designed to wind up the government front bench. At times today there were so many of them he looked like he was translating his leaders words into sign language. These sessions are never dignified but Balls has a special talent for making them look so much worse.



Forrest today, as so often, started punchily but then lost it as his questions became longer and rambling. He asked about yesterday's 0.5% growth figure accompanied by what we assume is his nodding dog's impression  of a flatlining economy. It's either that or he's thinking of starting a Michael Jackson tribute act and this is his version of smooth criminal. In truth however the 0.5% figure did not really do much for either side. It was better than expected but only because expectations were so low. But it wasn't as bad as Labour keep telling us it is. If the cuts are so damaging and we should be borrowing even more to stimulate the economy (despite the fact we are already borrowing £10billion a month and there is scant evidence that a stimulus is working in America for instance) then how is it that Britain's growth is broadly in line with what the rest of Europe is achieving?

But Dave didn't say any of this. One increasingly gets the impression that he is either being ill prepared for these sessions or simply doesn't bother to marshall the arguments and do the preparation required to give better and more detailed answers. Perhaps it is because his opponent is so lacklustre that he feels he has better things to do with his time. Or perhaps, like many clever people who have coasted through school, university and into the world of work with a minimum of effort, he trusts in his ability to blag it. Today however his lack of answers did seem more noticeable than usual.

Not that Forrest used this to his advantage. He seemed on automatic pilot himself. He was even repeating questions from earlier weeks about the regional growth fund and got a lot of blather from the PM rather than a clear answer. But Forrest is too flat footed to capitalise on Dave's lack of answers. There are no jokes, no sarcasm, no withering follow ups to embarrass Cameron. It's all too scripted, too flat and uninspiring. A top performer would expose Cameron's lack of detail and force him to do the work. Forrest just whinges about it and then asks another question.

And Forrest wasn't great on detail himself. He was making stuff up. Directors pay did not go up by 49% as he claimed. This was a lie. But then Dave probably didn't realise it, or if he did calculated that defending directors would be impolitic right now. Oh and Forrest seemed to say that the 50% tax rate is now firm and permanent Labour policy. A clear and unambiguous shift to the left. Not that Dave noticed once again.



And that was it. A session between these two, high on dodgy statistics and copying the language of the St Paul's protesters along with their lack of ideas or policies. There was little talk about the crisis in the Eurozone and the upcoming G20 meeting until a former Chancellor stood up and asked the best question of the day. Cameron could happily join him in a call for greater detail on the rescue because it has little to do with him. The contrast between the sensible and reassuringly boring Darling and the oafish and boorish nodding dog on the front bench was there for all to see. It's probably true that his behaviour does irritate the Tories and Dave in particular. But he really ought to have a look at himself on television. That smug smile and the maniacal hand gestures make him look very odd indeed.