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This is a blog of liberal stance and independent mind

Wednesday 29 April 2009

You Can Be Serious

The problem for the Lib Dems, I concluded recently, was that Nick Clegg would have to make himself heard above the sound of an increasingly tabloid Tory approach. It was ever thus for a third party in British politics, even one with over sixty MPs.

Yet today, with his party’s motion on the right of former Gurkha soldiers to settle in the UK, Clegg has made himself heard. He now has an opportunity rarely given to the leader of a third party: to make his pitch to the electorate, and with a General Election no more than a year away. However, he may have a difficult course to steer.

Clegg and his party carried today’s vote not only by attracting defections from Labour, but more significantly by gaining the more or less total support of the Tories. And here is the greatest hazard that he must negotiate.

David Cameron has latched on to the Gurkha issue in an act of shameless opportunism. Clegg had been ploughing a lone furrow on the issue; Cameron has joined in merely to defeat the Government. He may sympathise with the Gurkhas, but will value the photo opportunities alongside Joanna Lumley more. As I discussed previously, history tells any Liberal leader that getting too close to the Tories is not a good thing.

So Clegg must shut out any background noise from Young Dave and his chums. He has the stage. The electorate, I suspect, would like to hear him. And what might just go down well is someone – anyone – who can show some leadership. Let me give a definition of that term.

The economist and commentator J K Galbraith put it directly: “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership”.

Brown has, today, had another lapse of judgment. Cameron is good at play acting, shouting down the Government, and acts of opportunism. Neither of them are committing themselves – not with any conviction - to confront that major anxiety.

Thus the opportunity for Clegg. The requirement is straightforward: he must tell the electorate what he is for, where he is going, and above all he must level with us.

Now that Nick has spoken up, he must step up.

Another Question of Judgment

It was only earlier this week that I was considering another instance of poor judgment by the steadfast, medium-term, prudent defender of the colour Broon. It is now clear that a week is a long enough time in politics to include more than one instance of judgment drift. Because the Government have just been defeated on a motion put forward by the Lib Dems, on the subject of former Gurkha soldiers and their right to settle in the UK. Also, I’m glad to see that the BBC's Nick Robinson has reached a conclusion very similar to my own.

Of course, Gurkhas have been fighting for us for many, many years, and without a right to settle here, and the issue has been seized upon by a shamelessly opportunist Tory Party, but part of the job of Prime Minister is to see the curve balls coming. Pa Broon seems to have missed this one in flight: perhaps he needs someone to install a sight screen.

Tony Blair had Alastair Campbell to provide the focus and highlight the hazards. Who advises Brown? Does anyone advise him? More, does he listen and act on that advice?

Because right now, not only does Pa Broon need someone on the team to “do a Campbell”, he must then listen to the advice given and act directly on it. If his judgment is shaky, then he needs someone to assist – that’s not an admission of defeat, merely an acceptance that he can’t do everything by himself.

Who might he turn to? Well, for an initial damage estimate, Alastair Campbell would be a good place to start. Also, as he’s back in the Government, Brown should swallow his pride and summon Peter Mandelson, if only to frighten the Tories. And a good man to bring in as a “conscience” figure, satisfying the Lyndon Johnson criterion, would be Charles Clarke. Finally, if Brown still isn’t minded to listen, someone should ask Sarah to sit him down with a nice dram of malt and tell him. The alternative would be messy and distracting, and perhaps even less popular.

It is, as ever, a team game, as I considered earlier.

Bolly, Pats?

Watching the assembled Gurkhas and their supporters outside Parliament recently reminded me of how acting can be a perilous profession. Championing the Gurkha cause has been the evergreen Joanna Lumley, who has had to suffer the perils more than once over the years.

The young Ms Lumley was a top model in the 1960s, and for a while a regular on television, as Ken Barlow’s posh girlfriend in Coronation Street. She even got to appear in a Bond film (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – the one starring Big Fry) where she had one very memorable line: “Of course, I know what he’s allergic to”. But then she found herself out of favour and out of work.

Having to sign on, when folks still saw her as someone “off the telly”, must have been the most difficult of tasks. So it was no surprise that she went for the role of Purdey in the New Avengers with gusto and grim determination, to the delight not only of audiences, but all the womens’ hairdressers who cashed in on the craze for “Purdey cuts”. But later, again, she seemed to disappear from view.

Not for long: in the early 90s came Absolutely Fabulous, a series that could never be exported to the USA, because after taking out all the alcohol related content, and the non-PC language, there was very little left. Her character, Patsy Stone, had originally been pencilled in by creator Jennifer Saunders for a male actor. And Pats wasn’t a very nice person – but we didn’t care.

And now Joanna Lumley has become an occasional documentary star, campaigner, and all round National Treasure (thought she probably hates such labelling). Not by merely being there, but by being determined and purposeful as well as agreeable. All those qualities can be discovered in her first autobiography, which is a rather good read.

It’s called simply “Stare Back and Smile”.

Don’t Mind if I Do, Squire

One image that runs through the whole Smeargate business is that of groups of exclusively male journos, politicos and others enjoying each others’ company while putting away copious amounts of alcoholic beverages. This might surprise some out in the provinces, but not me.

Why not? Well, among the cities that work has taken me to over the years is London. And you don’t have to be there for long to realise that there is a predominantly male drinking culture. In my line of business, it was thought of as a “City culture”, but as workers move between the Square Mile and other berths elsewhere in the capital on a regular basis, in effect it is universal. And this also applies to journalists – remember Private Eye’s caricature of Lunchtime O’Booze.

From hacks, it’s not such a great leap to the advisors and hangers on in the Westminster village. And it is here that much of the gossip that found its way into those emails germinated. Like a recreation of the legendary Monty Python “nudge nudge” sketch, Damian McBride would address his drinking chums as “Squire”. But there wouldn’t be any Breakaway biscuits.

That, for me, was the problem with after work drinks (the site where I worked, thankfully, had a no-alcohol policy), that it was straight to whatever liquid was on offer, without any interruption for food: a colleague once pitched the still memorable phrase “eating’s cheating” to me. Not that I’m averse to the odd pint or two of an evening, but the empty stomach beforehand. It’s not for mere show that a bar in central Madrid will serve you a tapa with your tipple, as I previously noted.

The discovery by more and more – usually but not exclusively male – workers in and around the City that by their mid-30s they have put their livers under severe strain will inevitably extend to the Westminster village. After all, it’s a similar culture, driven by the same drug. Nobody seeing Damian McBride, a prematurely corpulent and otherwise unhealthy mess, and learning that he is only in his thirties, should be surprised.

Unless they’re from out of town.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Not Whiter than White

While acknowledging the achievement of Everton’s players in overturning Manchester United’s 39 year unbeaten spell in FA Cup Semi-Finals, I remembered the last team to beat Man U at that stage in the competition. It was Leeds United.

Leeds were a team that provoked very different feelings, depending on where you lived. For those of us growing up less than fifteen miles from Elland Road, they were the local side that had made it to the top, and that was seen as A Good Thing. Many others disliked the team for its gamesmanship and occasional crude play. The semi-final against Man U, which went to two replays (those who dislike penalty shoot-outs please note) was typical: Billy Bremner was on his way to berate the referee before realising he’d scored the winning goal.

At one awards dinner, with the Yorkshire TV cameras present, guest of honour Brian Clough said in typically direct style exactly what he thought of the Leeds approach, but YTV were not courageous enough to include Cloughie’s speech in what was finally transmitted. It might just have upset their audience.

The Leeds revival of the 1960s came under the guidance of Don Revie, who had the team play in all white to ape Real Madrid. But they were no band of galacticos. In addition to the accusations of dirty play came suggestions of attempted match fixing, though nothing was proved.

The opponents that awaited Leeds United after those three semi-final matches in the 1970 FA Cup were Chelsea. And they, too, had players well versed in the physical aspects of the game, not least Ron “Chopper” Harris, their captain, who Mark Lawrenson recently said would have got himself booked getting off the team bus.

That final went to a replay, at Old Trafford. Late tackles, head butting, lunging, kneeing and fisticuffs were all in evidence in a supremely ill-tempered match. Leeds’ Mick Jones temporary disabling of Chelsea keeper Peter Bonetti helped him to open the scoring; Peter Osgood later equalised, partly because Jack Charlton, who should have been marking him, was elsewhere on the pitch looking for some afters.

And, after more extra time, Leeds ended up losing a match that modern day referee David Elleray later reviewed, concluding that the teams had merited a total of six sendings off and twenty bookings.

Leeds’ diehard supporters thought they had been robbed; most neutrals shrugged and concluded they got what they deserved.

They don’t make them like that any more.

Breakdown of the Gravy Train

A week is indeed a long time in politics. In this post, I looked at what Pa Broon had actually said about reforming the parliamentary expense system, rather than his performance, concluding that this was aimed at choking off the welter of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests about which MPs were claiming for flat screen TVs, sofa beds and bathplugs. I did think that, after the usual posturing, Brown might get some measure of agreement for the idea, but that now looks a long way off.

And if the Broon YouTube performance was bad, the posturing and reasoning of the other two party leaders has not stood serious analysis either. In the case of David Cameron, this may be related to a less than happy conversation he had with Pa Broon late last week.

Brown directly pinned part of the blame for all the expenses hooha on Cameron, for making party political gain from the subject. He was right, but this was never going to help the two reach an understanding. So Young Dave has come out even more jolly angry than usual, yet again using the whole business to slag off the Government, while failing to put forward any proposal of his own.

The level to which the debate has descended was summed up by Cameron, who denounced the concept of an attendance allowance as “sign in and bugger off”. This supremely infelicitous outburst glosses over the fact that, at present, the system does not even oblige MPs to turn up in the first place.

And Corporal Clegg hasn’t covered himself in glory either. His reason for rejecting the allowance idea? It’s too much like the EU. Yes, the leader of the only solidly pro European party in the Commons is using the expenses debate to engage in Euro bashing. Er, hello?

Meanwhile, the barrage of FOI requests continues. The benefit from any fallout, on balance of probabilities, will generally favour opposition parties, if only because of the comparative numbers of MPs. But it only needs someone to unearth another Conway or Chichester and Young Dave will find himself in the crosshairs once more.

Blaming Pa Broon for that may not be easy.

Monday 27 April 2009

Makes a Change from Dogs

Dog bites postman is not news. But what one unfortunate postie found in a Somerset post box was something rather more exceptional, as The Guardian tells us today, right here.


By George, We’ve Bought It!

A friend emailed me the other day with a link to a story on a hardy New Labour perennial, the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). My first reaction was that this was one of those subjects that does the rounds periodically, but that I’d give it a read anyway.

PFI is something close to the heart of the sustainable, medium term, prudent defender of the colour Broon. It has also racked up a liability for all of us amounting to over 200 billion notes, according to this article by George Monbiot. So perhaps it’s worth having that read.

The idea of PFI is that you can get the private sector to build hospitals, schools, roads and the like – provided you pay them to take on any associated risk. And this does seem to increase the price, as Monboit demonstrates. Also, with recent events making the taxpayer a major shareholder in some of the largest high street banks, the whole process of bank involvement is making PFIs positively incestuous.

One argument in favour of PFI in the first place was that it was a means of keeping all this new infrastructure off the Government balance sheet. Not any more. Monbiot reminds us that, from this month, it’s all being counted as public sector debt (along with all the other public sector debt).

So why not at least review the future use of PFI? The thought occurs that Pa Broon can’t bring himself to cross that bridge. To me, this is another question mark against his judgment, as I previously considered here and here. But there is also the thought that opposition parties aren’t openly distancing themselves from the practice – or if they are, it’s being done rather quietly.

David Cameron has just made a speech to the Tory faithful – and mainly for their consumption – where he has said that a future Tory government will reward ministers who make savings. Where better to start than to kick PFI into the long grass? An opportunity to put some clear water (blue, green, whatever) between Tory and Labour appears to have gone begging.

Another deafening silence has descended.

Sunday 26 April 2009

The View Not from Zimbabwe

Stay with me on this – yes, it may look boring, but I’ve been checking up on the fallout from Smeargate (or Emailgate, Redraggate or McBridegate) to see how attempts to prolong the shelf life of this story are progressing – or not.

Apparently on the fringe of the whole business is expatriate Merseysider Nadine Dorries, Tory MP for Mid Bedfordshire, who was the subject of one of Damian McBride’s emails. The contents of that email were, shall we say, unlikely to get out of the playground. Now it transpires that Ms Dorries has “instructed and proceeded with legal action” – the wording coming from her blog.

This has already generated a great deal of speculation as to what the action may be (or not), who may be sued, who may get called as witnesses, whether such an action would be a “no win, no fee” one, and whether or not it would even come to court.

One question that may inform all of this can be put directly: what kind of person is Nadine Dorries? What sort of view of the world does she, as an apparently politically upwardly mobile opposition back bencher, have? These questions are likely to be asked more and more: she’s tipped for ministerial rank in a Cameron government.

Ah well. On the first question I have to pass, being someone merely observing from a distance. But on the second, another look at that blog is informative. In case you need to have it pointed out, here’s the line that stands out:

“It’s beginning to feel more like Zimbabwe every day”

Hmmm. Here I start to feel a mood of, shall we say, mild exaggeration from Ms D. Perhaps Mid Bedfordshire and the Westminster village are scarier places than Crewe, because I didn’t experience any downtown Harare moments yesterday when out and about.

Walking over to Asda early afternoon, there were no empty shelves or hordes of punters without the means to pay for their food. The majority of folks are employed – rather than the other way about in Zimbabwe. For those of us picking up milk, bread and some pitted green olives – we Guardian reading subversives do like our antipasti – there was no prospect of street violence, police or paramilitary beating, and no power cuts and lack of clean water on returning home. Nor have I noticed any creeping censorship over the recent past, nor has anyone even tried to prevent my free movement around the town, the area, or the wider north west.

And there I will leave the thought hanging. But the Zimbabwe comparison is not the personal preserve of Nadine Dorries, and I’ll touch on it again later.

Saturday 25 April 2009

More Than an Airfield

This week has seen a faintly ridiculous idea floated: that the UK government should subsidise motorsport. And it won’t happen.

But this fact should not mask the possibility that Formula 1 is about to leave its very oldest venue. Because it was at Silverstone, on 13 May 1950, that the first F1 World Championship began. The circuit followed the perimeter track of a wartime airfield – hence the Hangar Straight – and at the time the paddock and pits were close to today’s Bridge Corner.

So what? Well, there are few motor racing circuits that were there at the beginning, and are still there. Monaco is one. The circuit in the park at Monza is another, although for decades without its notorious and occasionally lethal banking. Also there at the beginning was Spa-Francorchamps, though the Belgian track fell out of favour for many years until it was shortened and brought up to modern day safety standards. But Silverstone has been there throughout, although sometimes having to alternate with other venues such as Brands Hatch and Aintree.

So why leave? As with so much to do with F1, this leads to supremo Bernie Ecclestone, the man with the million pound donation. Bernie doesn’t think that Silverstone is up to it, and he’s done a deal to move the British F1 round to Donington Park. But those of us who’ve experienced the traffic aftermath of a Donington meeting know that staging an F1 Grand Prix there would make race day congestion around Silverstone look positively benign.

Moreover, work to improve the Donington Park circuit doesn’t seem to be making the necessary progress, added to which the owners of the venue have just started legal action against its leaseholders for a rent bill alleged to be well north of two million quid. So attention is being turned back to Silverstone. And this is when the idea of subsidy was floated, then quickly sunk – rightly so – by the Government.

What happens next? Ecclestone appears adamant that the F1 circus won’t return to Silverstone. British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) head man Damon Hill is trying to sound optimistic. But, so far, all the signs are that the line leading from that first race, won by Giuseppe Farina in an Alfa Romeo 158, is about to end.

Supermarket Sweep

Going back five years, Crewe had rather less in the way of supermarkets than it does today, but even so, there was no clamour for more choice or more outlets. Neither did the population have any obvious problem accessing one or other of the stores.

This state of affairs, however, was clearly not a satisfactory one for more than one of the big players. There was no Tesco outlet, and the nearest Sainsbury’s was on the edge of Nantwich, a whole three miles from central Crewe. Things would inevitably change, and the process started in earnest with Morrison’s takeover of Safeway.

The Crewe Safeway soon closed, and then reopened as a 24 hour Tesco. Since then, two smaller Tesco outlets have opened on Nantwich Road. Sainsbury’s have moved into the former Kwik Save on Edleston Road, and now want to open another store in town. But the most blatant new proposal is from discounter Aldi, who want to bulldoze The Earl, a roadhouse pub on Nantwich Road, to enable them to build a second Crewe outlet, which would coincidentally be opposite a Co-op of roughly the same size.

All this is excused by the deployment of the C-word – as in Choice. And it’s another dose of industrial strength drivel.

If the next proposal were to come from Lidl or Netto – or any other retailer without a presence in the area – then that would indeed bring choice. But another Sainsbury’s, Aldi or Tesco does not bring more choice: it merely heralds an attempt to gain territory and squeeze smaller competitors.

It is against this backdrop that independent stores and street markets – Crewe does market days Friday, Saturday and Monday – have to try and keep their heads above water.

So it’s a town rather like any other in the UK in that respect.

Friday 24 April 2009

Austerity and Utility – Take Two

Giving the least well off more money? How do we pay for that? And how can we be sure that they’ll spend it?

Lifting the folks at the bottom of the income pile out of tax, partially or wholly, means that others will have to pay more. There are a number of ways of accomplishing this: varying the VAT rate, increases in duty on tobacco and alcohol, or even the rate of direct taxation. That there would need to be increases in taxes elsewhere to enact this idea should not be ducked.

The benefit would come in the far greater likelihood that the extra money going to the least well off – or money not being taken away from them in tax – will be spent, driving economic activity, rather than being saved for the proverbial rainy day.

And that likelihood is far greater because the least well off will invariably have more things to spend money on, than the amount of money to do that spending. Economist speak calls this the propensity to spend. That propensity is rather lower among the well off: there are only seven opportunities in a week for dining out of an evening, and less if there are dinner parties to arrange or attend. There is a limit to the number of cars that can be kept and maintained within one household, or to the amount that can be expended on holidays, hobbies and other habits that exceed any concept of necessity.

The less well off, with their disposable income and therefore discretionary spending power at a low level, are far better candidates for a marginal increase in that income as a way of maintaining or even increasing economic activity. The spending may not garner universal acclaim amongst the chattering classes – it may go on the occasional takeaway or skinful of ale – but it is most likely to be spent.

But what of the deserving entrepreneur? This talisman of free marketeers, libertarians and others on the right, it is often argued, needs the extra marginal income as they drive increased economic activity through their efforts. However, this does not stand serious analysis. The straightforward question needs to be asked: just how many entrepreneurial spirits have been stifled waiting on a marginal personal tax break?

It’s all gone quiet.

Austerity and Utility - Take One

It was said of Clem Attlee’s second Chancellor of the Exchequer, Stafford Cripps, that he almost revelled in doling out the bad economic news. Well, Alistair Darling is now giving out the bad news, but how he’s liking it is not readily apparent. He’s certainly not liking having to explain it.

And austere it is. Government spending growing at the rates put forward in Wednesday’s Budget means more likelihood of job losses, with many public sector workers – not all of whom are at CEO level – facing what may be a pay freeze. It’s going to be more of the same in the private sector, too.

Should we be worried about this? In a word, yes. Because the ability of such people to spend money is going to be a crucial part of getting the economy to recover. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, folks either had no money, or held on to what they had, with the result that economic activity remained depressed throughout the thirties.

So how could more economic activity be generated from those millions of ordinary people, whether in the private or public sector, if they’re having to suffer pay constraints and therefore have little extra disposable income?

The answer has been supplied by the World’s Most Agreeable Politician (tm) Vince Cable and his fellow Lib Dems. And it involves a straightforward, but common sense, adjustment to the level at which income tax is levied.

The Lib Dems are proposing raising the tax threshold – that level at which we start to pay income tax – to take many low earners either out of tax altogether, or reduce their contribution significantly.

So why is this “common sense”? Well, if you’re going to give someone a tax break, giving that break to the folks for whom it will prove immediately useful is most likely to generate economic activity. The less well off will derive far more benefit – economists like to use the word “utility” – from an extra pound in the metaphorical pocket than the very well off.

This idea, however, is not universally popular on the right of the political spectrum. I’ll revisit the whole business, and show why the protests from the right are little more than hot air, later.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Best Supporting Actor?

Thursday afternoon, and I’m having to play catch-up. Yesterday, as the weather was pleasant, and nobody was going to be bothered about what I thought of the Budget (a thought that has not yet entered the heads of some of my fellow bloggers), I went out and about the north-west travelling, meeting people and generally chilling.

So the first Budget analysis I sat down to was last night’s edition of The Inquisition of Pax Jeremiah, which told me that Paxo delights in asking questions that he knows the interviewee isn’t going to answer. He can then continue to say that politicians don’t answer his questions.

What of the Budget? Alistair Darling doesn’t do soaring rhetoric, so it was necessary to actually listen to what he said. The forecast numbers may be optimistic, but those resorting to countering with the IMF equivalents need to bear in mind that the latter body has been less optimistic than the Government for more than a decade, and usually proved wrong.

And the opposition? I do wonder why the opposite numbers to the Chancellor, the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, and World’s Most Agreeable Politician (tm) Vince Cable, can’t respond for their parties. Doesn’t David Cameron have any faith in the abilities of the Heir to the Seventeenth Baronet? Is Corporal Clegg frightened that Cable will steal his thunder? In any case, the act that got noticed, as was no doubt the intention, was Cameron.

Other commentators have now noticed, as I have for some time, that Cameron’s performances at the Dispatch Box are not spontaneous. The rehearsal extends beyond the words into gestures and attitude. The faux anger of yesterday’s response was good for Tory morale, but little else: it’s the same as ever, getting himself worked up to shout down all those jolly stupid types on the other side, while telling us that he and his fellow rather good chaps are fed up and jolly angry about it.

There are dramatic arm movements; the pile of notes is left in disarray. Yet underneath everything, there is no idea of how Cameron the opposition leader would act in Government, except of course that acting as he is now doing – play acting – will not tackle economic woes, international affairs, energy security, climate change, or, of course, expenses.

The Coulson claptrap machine drives on. But we are none the wiser.

All Hail the Prezza!

Has politics lost its sense of humour? That supporting cast of more or less eccentric MPs seems to be in terminal decline. And typical of the retreat of “real characters” is the vacating of centre stage by John Prescott.

Even though you knew there was going to be a comprehensive mangling of the English language as soon as he opened his mouth, it still made for good copy or viewing. The odd details were good fun, too: that shortest of car journeys to keep Pauline’s hair just so, and the response to egg throwing that Michael Grade, while guesting on Have I Got News For You, described as “the Eric Cantona memorial blow”. And all the time he waved that pledge card.

Added to all of this was Prezza’s blatant infidelity, made all the more improbable when his bulk and love of Chinese fill-ups were considered. What kind of chat-up line would someone like him use? “Ey up, Tracey, catch the romantic whiff of that fart”, perhaps?

At least he could summarise the affair in suitable language: “Traditional misbehaviour in a modern setting”.

There’s a pledge for you.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

The Vanishing Gravy Train

Expenses. They’re back. But this time, they won’t be quite so obvious. Let me explain.

The reason we all know about Jacqui Smith’s bathplugs and her husband’s taste in films is because everything has to be accounted for. Electronically. Thus the barrage of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests: this is easy copy for hacks, broadcasters and bloggers, and even if only two MPs a week get hit, there’s enough for more than a whole five year parliament.

And, although that hurts the party in government the most – they’ve got more MPs, for starters – the constant drip feed of expense revelations affects Tory, Lib Dem, Nationalist and the rest too.

So it would make sense if someone devised a system where there was rather less to gain from all the FOI requests. Guess what? That is, more or less, what Pa Broon outlined yesterday afternoon. While some were making fun of the Prime Minister’s, shall we say, unrehearsed performance, nobody appeared to get the point: if it’s all rolled into a daily allowance, then there is no more picking off the instances of flat screen TVs, sofa beds and bathplugs.

Who will know in future if ministers’ partners are into “adult” films? There won’t be any separate accounting for them, so no disclosure need be made. That leaves an awful lot of column inches, airtime and bandwidth to fill.

So, after Young Dave and Corporal Clegg have had a think about it, what will they say to the daily allowance? They may just come round to the idea. After all, it’s for their benefit as well.

Here’s a lesson for the Tories, their hangers-on, and all the others who think that, just because he’s awkward in front of the camera, he’s stupid: Gordon Brown didn’t get to be P M by being stupid. He got there because he’s a formidable politician.

And you’ve got to be pretty damn formidable to make a gravy train vanish.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

The Style of Shanks

There’s always a bit of needle between local rivals: Spurs and Arsenal, Man City and Man U – even Preston and Burnley. So it is with Liverpool and Everton.

Into the mix recently has been pitched the comment by Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez that Everton were a “small club”.

Call me old fashioned, but if I object to one thing about that remark, it’s that it’s lacking in style. Bill Shankly delivered a far better dig at his rivals, without even mentioning them.

Shanks simply said “There’s two great teams on Merseyside ... ehh ... Liverpool ... ehh ... and Liverpool Reserves”

Coming Clean

One lesson to be learnt from both the G20 policing fallout and Smeargate is that of honesty: dissembling and dodging doesn’t work and sooner or later you’ll get rumbled. And with the immediacy of all those cameras and blogs, the chances are that it will be sooner.

As to the corollary – the following up of coming clean with at least saying sorry – that seems to be lacking in both cases. I know that Pa Broon won’t want to look as if he’s being pushed around by the Tories, but it still looks bad.

And if there is any more bad news in the Downing Street closet, and the government thinks it can sit on it and hope the mob will move on, they’re just plain flat wrong.

You have been warned.

Budget, Darling?

They always used to be in March, as I remember, but this year the Budget has had to wait until April. Much has already been trailed – that wouldn’t have pleased Clem Attlee – but here’s some entirely personal thoughts.

Where can we save money? Well, sorry Jacqui, but I D Cards are a complete waste. The idea that any or all of us may be safer as a result of their introduction does not stand serious scrutiny. So let’s have that one in the bin right now.

But probably even more could be saved by ending the pretence of an allegedly independent nuclear deterrent. Trident is certainly nuclear, but it ain’t independent, and it deters none of the threats to the UK – as if you’d take out a terrorist cell with a nuclear warhead. Yes, there will be screams of protest from the Usual Suspects (step forward the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail), but we don’t need it, and the money could be used to far better effect elsewhere.

So-called “non doms”: yes, let’s have them paying something towards the country that they think is so wonderful. Again, there will be howls of protest: that these entrepreneurial spirits are being targeted by mere leftist envy. That is industrial strength drivel. If the folks at the bottom of the pile are expected to chip in, so should everyone else.

And, as someone who takes an interest in things transport wise, I’d strongly favour the start of a programme of railway electrification. Electric working is more reliable, does not rely on one power generation source, and is more pleasant for the traveller. More, at a time of increasing unemployment, it can tap into the pool of workers shed by the construction industry, with the increased number of workers employed feeding through into more general economic activity.

So let’s start that programme with the Great Western Main Line, and all the way to Plymouth and Swansea, with no corner cutting – so that means doing “via Bristol” as well as “via Westbury”.

Finally, while on the subject of transportation – let’s revisit light rail solutions for our largest cities, and give folks a decent alternative to increased car usage. Leeds and Liverpool should never have had theirs dropped, and neither should the London cross river tram have been binned.

Might this mean the re-regulation of bus services outside London? Well, as the man in House of Cards might have said, “you might wish to think that – I couldn’t possibly comment”.

Monday 20 April 2009

Shock of the New

In the post-Ealing film comedy The Wrong Arm of the Law, a gang of Australian criminals starts operating in London, giving themselves legitimacy by posing as policemen. This so offends both the established body of criminality, and the real police force, that the two join forces to see the Aussies off. As the criminals’ representative says to one of the senior policemen, “We pull a job. You chase us. We both know where we are”.

It was this exchange that came to mind after I found myself, firstly, watching Newsnight Review on Friday evening. Why? Dunno. It had been a long day, and I wasn’t quick enough to turn off the TV. But there was Ian Hislop, archetypal “young fogey” editor of Private Eye, apparently laying into the blogosphere in general, and Paul Staines in particular, in the wake of the Damian McBride email business.

Then, the following morning, the Telegraph also went after Staines, who is better known under his blogging nom-de-plume of Guido Fawkes. Many have seen the Telegraph article as evidence that the paper is being used by the Labour Party as a conduit, and that this is merely a payback hatchet job executed on the say so of Pa Broon, or at least someone close to him.

However, put the two together, and you get something rather more straightforward: the establishment media versus the blogosphere, the latter being something that some journos either do not get, or would rather the rest of us do not. The reason that there was a common target is straightforward: Staines has had the recent scoop, and the departure of Damian McBride happened before the mainstream print media got involved (although the knowledge that the Screws was going to publish may have helped him out the door).

As I posted previously, the Eye would have previously been the conduit for the McBride emails, but as a fortnightly, cannot match the immediacy of the blogosphere. Moreover, the Telegraph had tried to get something out of the story the previous Saturday, and its being usurped by a mere blogger would have hurt.

So the Hislop grumble and the Telegraph hatchet job have a simple commonality: the established order take exception to a newcomer on what they see as their patch - with the potential for many more newcomers to follow in short order – and react accordingly. They may look like incompatible bedfellows, but it’s as in the film.

We both know where we are.

In the Very Old Loop

Just released is In The Loop, a film by Armando Iannucci about the currently topical subject of behind the scenes spinmeisters, and their effect on government ministers.

Yes, this kind of thing is happening right now somewhere in the Westminster village. But it has been happening not for a few years, but for almost half a century. I’ve not delved any further back than 1964 - perhaps there is yet more to turn up – so my potted digest of spin starts with Joe Haines, who was press secretary to Harold Wilson until he stepped down as Prime Minister in 1976.

Haines remains an ambiguous figure, having later taken the Maxwell shilling and written what was widely regarded as a hagiography of the man that Private Eye cheerfully dubbed the Bouncing Czech. But while he served Wislon, he would, generally, behave in a way that present day lobby correspondents would recognise: keeping bad news out of the media, and otherwise limiting the damage, putting the least worst face on events.

Later, before the term “spin doctor” had been coined, came one of its greatest exponents, Bernard Ingham. Ingham was a career civil servant, but this did not stand in the way of his work behind the scenes in support of Margaret Thatcher during her time at 10 Downing Street. It was Ingham who fed the characterisation to the media of John Biffen – then Leader of the Commons – as “semi detached” (Biffen did not last beyond the next cabinet reshuffle). His briefings were “off the record” which meant that they were not attributable to him. That aspect may just sound familiar.

Ingham also had that characteristic which some saw as “Yorkshire gruff” but which was perhaps best summed up by Thatcher, who once said to him “You know, Bernard, neither of us are smooth people”.

Those who think that spin started with Alastair Campbell just haven’t been in the loop.

Sunday 19 April 2009

At Last the 1995 Show!

Was it so long ago? Manchester United endured an end of season without the one player who could make a difference: one midweek evening at Selhurst Park, the red mist descended on Eric Cantona after a Wimbledon fan – yes, such people really did exist – shouted something rather stronger than the admitted “Off! Off! It’s an early bath for you!” following the Frenchman’s sending off.

So the Red Devils arrived at Wembley – the original and genuine one – for the F A Cup Final without him. They were still fancied to beat Joe Royle’s Everton side, but the clock ticked by and the score remained nil-nil. Until, that is, an Everton counter attack found the Blues with a man over and they scored the only goal of the game. Alex Ferguson’s men besieged the Everton goal in the dying minutes but there was no way past Neville Southall, a keeper who ranked alongside the very best.

Until today, the joke going the rounds about Everton is of Joe Royle getting a letter from Everton FC, only to find a huge electricity bill inside. When Joe calls to ask what they’re playing at, they tell him that he was the last one inside the trophy cabinet, and he left the light on.

Well, whisper it quietly, but in David Moyes, Everton once again have a manager who can get them punching well above their weight. And this afternoon at Wembley – the new one with the unfeasibly poor playing surface – Moyes got his tactics absolutely right. The match went to extra time, then to penalties – but that would be suicidal against Man U, right?


I would never have called Everton to come out on top in a penalty shoot out, but Moyes must have been busy behind the scenes. So Everton are the first team in 39 years to put Man U out at the semi final stage of the F A Cup. Now they only have to beat The Chelski in the final. It’s a big ask, but at the start of the season, nobody would have given them a chance of being there at the death.

Perhaps the time has come for someone else to go into that trophy cabinet.

Class Warriors – This Time it’s Taxing

There are two schools of thought on the concept of higher taxation for the very well off: one suggests that this is mere envy and the most basic kind of class war, with the other saying that it’s just a convenient source of a little extra dosh.

As I showed in the earlier post on Class Warriors, it is easy to paint the picture of politicians like David Cameron and his chums as victims of envy, while failing to see that they are more likely to be the object of ridicule. Similarly, the idea that extra taxes on the best off is another helping of envy politics does not stand up to practical scrutiny. An example may serve to make the point.

I’ve previously mentioned my status as a freelance, and that, therefore, for me Gordon Brown has previous. Under his chancellorship, we got IR35 and, I suspect, Labour lost a number of votes. So what was the idea of IR35 – was it some kind of envy amongst the Labour brethren, or merely an extra income source for H M Treasury?

Answering that question should not detain anyone for long: the average freelance is never going to be in the top five per cent of earners, and has to cope with a market where rates and availability of assignments varies considerably. So, yes, there may be times without work for weeks, or even months. This was part of the quid pro quo before IR35, where freelances working through their own limited companies benefited from being able to pay less in National Insurance contributions, but when “between assignments” tended not to claim benefits.

Is anyone seriously going to suggest that those in the Treasury, or elsewhere in the government or the Labour Party, envied freelance workers? Pull the other one. IR35 wasn’t an exercise in envy, but the tapping of an extra source of income. Asking the best off to pay more in income tax is another such source. That is how the Treasury works, whatever the stripe of the governing party.

It’s nothing to do with envy – but all about cash flow. Boring but true.

Oh Carol!

She may be Mrs T’s daughter, but Carol Thatcher is delightfully independent in spirit. She acquitted herself well on today’s Andy Marr Show, occupying the sofa with Neil “utterly and totally” Kinnock. Clearly the deeply subversive Beeboids have relented and allowed her back on to their mainstream channel.

Her independence was shown at the end of the programme, when she and Kinnock were joined briefly on that sofa by the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, who found himself on the wrong end of a comment attributed by Carol T to her mother (although Kinnock remembered it as being one of Nye Bevan’s) about folks going into politics to be someone, rather than to do something.

She clearly noticed Osborne sitting there on the end of the sofa, and quickly added “present company excepted”, but she’d said it. And it was right: apart from being the Heir to the Seventeenth Baronet, Osborne hasn’t been anyone outside politics. And he is not alone in the House of Commons.

Moreover, this is not merely a Tory characteristic: Pa Broon’s confidante “Auguste” Balls is another career advisor cum politician – well, apart from a spell at the FT, that is.

And then they take it in turns to accuse each other of being out of touch with ordinary people. They may all be right, which really is scary.

Look, I Really Mean It

This morning – and running a little late, as it’s been raining in Shanghai – the Andy Marr show featured an interview with the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne (heir to the seventeenth Baronet), who, on current polling data, is set to occupy 11 Downing Street some time next year.

As the interview progressed, I had a déjà vu moment. It was David Cameron. Or, rather, it was Cameron’s gesture. As questions were being asked, Osborne affected that same concerned-yet-attentive slight frown. Also, when answering, there was a noticeable restraint, less of the aren’t-I-clever of old, with a measured delivery, and – God strike down Tony Blair for bringing this to politics – a few “y’knows” as well. We were being presented with a more acceptable and ordinary Osborne. It was a triumph of presentation over substance, the Coulson claptrap machine clearly in overdrive.

Because what there was not was any specific commitment to where spending cuts might fall, nor how the adverse effect on tax revenues of having more unemployment would be dealt with. We were, though, told that Osborne and Cameron were “fiscal conservatives”, which may sound snappy, but in reality leads back to spending cuts. Saying someone is “fiscally conservative” is a fancy way of saying that they’re tight.

What there was, of course, was the on-message pinning of all woes on Pa Broon, with the added twist that any spending cuts that a future Osborne-as-Chancellor made wouldn’t be his, but Brown’s. This was industrial strength drivel of the highest order.

Labour should be able to pick apart such flannel with ease, but the party has got itself mired in whatever-the-media-is-calling-it-todaygate – and for that they have only themselves to blame. In the meantime, blatant careerists like Osborne have a clear road to make the running, without needing the skills of Sebastian Vettel.

And what of the Lib Dems? The prosaic reality is as before: Clegg and Co need to make themselves heard over the tabloid Tory approach. Whether or not you like the Tories, what they are doing is working right now.

And I really mean that.

Saturday 18 April 2009

The Deadly Embrace

Previously, I mentioned coalitions, and asserted that nobody except the Tories should relish such an arrangement. Here I’ll show why that assertion was made so unequivocally.

UK Governments have managed without formal coalitions for most of the recent past. There was a brief “Lib-Lab Pact” in the late 1970s between David Steel’s Liberals and Jim Callaghan’s majority Labour party, but this stopped short of full coalition. Where there have been such coalitions, they have involved the Tories, and it is that party that has emerged stronger as a result.

The wartime coalition that saw David Lloyd George become Prime Minister in 1916 was continued after the war, and this alliance of Tories and some Liberals gained a majority after the 1918 General Election of over 250 seats. The Tories, however, became increasingly unhappy with Lloyd George and in 1922 the coalition was ended after an impassioned speech to his fellow Tories by Stanley Baldwin – something that surprised LG, who noted that Baldwin never uttered a word in Cabinet. Lloyd George, now without a party, was effectively finished, as was a divided Liberal Party.

The Tories, however, were by 1924 able to form a majority government on their own, but were defeated by Labour in 1929. The economic situation, and the lack of unanimity in Labour ranks, led to Ramsay MacDonald going into coalition with the Tories in the National Government of 1931. MacDonald became merely a figurehead Prime Minister, with Stanley Baldwin holding the levers of power. Labour were, as with the Liberals previously, divided and weaker after the event. The Tories had a majority after the 1935 General Election of over 300.

Outside parliament, the Tories have occasionally courted and encouraged Trade Unionists: during the so-called “Winter of Discontent” they egged on council workers, and even settled their wage demands on taking office in 1979, only to throw many of them out of work soon afterwards as a result of rounds of spending cuts. This encouragement continued with the Nottinghamshire miners during the 1984-5 Miners’ strike: the Notts miners carried on working, formed their own trade union, then were as effectively doomed as their former colleagues in the NUM.

There’s a lesson here, and a straightforward one, for anyone tempted by overtures from young Dave: get into bed with the Tories, and you get shafted.

My hunch is that Andy Coulson may be avoiding that particular strapline.

The Prescription is Written

This week, Pa Broon and the rest of his Cabinet have been on another awayday – this time to Scotland. Indeed, this is the first such meeting north of the border since 1921, during the time of the Lloyd George coalition. I will be returning to the C-word later, but here is another visit to the E-word – that’s as in Economy.

Some of the differences in outlook between the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments were already known – one apparently irreconcilable one being that of new nuclear power stations. But Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond had another bone to pick with Pa Broon this week – he’s not keen on upcoming spending cuts, and is worried that this will choke off recovery from recession.

He is right to be worried – but whether the cuts are enough to turn down a recovering economy is not certain: the overall trend is still one of growing overall public spending. Were that trend to be downward, the uncertainty would be ended. And there is now a party advocating just that.

In this news item from the BBC, the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne (heir to the seventeenth Baronet) has used the C-word (this time as in Cuts) unequivocally. As the Beeb reports, Osborne has told the Financial Times that spending cuts will be the order of the day, as "You don't want to kill off the recovery with heavy tax rises that bring you back to square one."

Osborne does not mention the clear corollary of these cuts, the inevitable rise in unemployment. Hence he fails to acknowledge that, all things being equal, there will still have to be tax rises, as the tax take will be reduced with less people employed. How this particular circle will be squared is not explained.

But George does want us to know that the Tories want to be honest with the public, even though details of where the cuts will fall have yet to emerge.

And to get into power in the first place, the Tories have to turn a large number of constituencies from red to blue, especially if the Lib Dems hold on to their sixty-odd seats. Unless, that is, they were to try and form some kind of coalition.

And why nobody except the Tories should relish such an opportunity, I will consider later.

Potty Training

The police have got themselves a whole load of bad press recently, much of it richly deserved. Here’s a little more: two Austrian tourists (father and son) have decided that they would rather not return to London after they were apparently forced to delete all their transport related photographs for, you guessed, “security reasons”. It is, plainly, potty. The deeply subversive Guardian has the story here.

The Met are now “investigating”, which may be code for “nobody has yet owned up”.

Also, the impression is gaining hold in at least one Usenet community that the “officer” involved may have been a PCSO, in which case they aren’t in a position to tell punters to delete their snaps. And neither are security guards, whatever the appearance of their uniforms or their demeanour.

It does seem that, like rail staff, the direction and training given from the top of the organisations concerned is not getting through to those “on the ground”, or that such people are varying the rules to suit themselves.

If in doubt, summon the real Police. And, whatever the outcome, by all means tell the media. This sort of thing has to be stopped.

Friday 17 April 2009

Eddie’s Good Deed

I often pass adverse comment on my MP, Edward Timpson (the man with marginally more charisma than a Burton’s dummy) and, after he sat on the fence over Network Rail’s potty idea of moving the station out of town, there will be more of the same.

But credit where credit’s due: Eddie has been out on the football field recently, and with the highly sound target of raising £25,000 for charity. More, this was not any old kick about: on the opposing team was one Cyrille Regis, and that means it was serious football.

A Question of Balance

Balance and equilibrium. Two words that encompass much of the way that economists used to think, and of the way that some still do. The depression of the 1930s changed some perceptions, but some lessons take a lot of learning.

Economies were believed, before the depression, to have a natural tendency towards a state of equilibrium, at which point anyone wanting to work would be employed, and the laws of supply and demand meant that all goods produced were sold. Increased unemployment was thought of as some kind of temporary state; a passing phase.

Then came the depression, and it became obvious, even without the advocacy of John Maynard Keynes, that economies could reach a state of equilibrium with a high level of unemployment if left to themselves. This thought, however, was not allowed to disturb the presidency of Herbert Hoover, who was therefore unable to face what, for all too many citizens of the USA, was the issue that concerned them most.

The Hoover administration in fact ran a budget surplus as banks failed across the country, unemployment headed towards 25% of the workforce, and shares lost 89% of their value. Small wonder, then, that once Franklin Roosevelt had committed himself to tackling the issue, he was elected President in a landslide.

But unemployment remained high both in the USA and here in the UK. And, despite his commitment to addressing the issue, Roosevelt was reluctant to maintain a budget deficit. So, in 1937, measures were taken to bring the budget back into balance, and the result was as Keynes had warned: the economy slumped. It’s a lesson that, today, many politicians and economists are also reluctant to recognise.

The balanced budget is still, to some, the touchstone of credibility. Margaret Thatcher drove towards it in her first term, and gave the UK a decade of appallingly high unemployment as a result. Now there are signs that David Cameron and his ostensibly new and caring Tory Party will also be so committed, if returned to power.

Should they do so, the result will be, more or less, as Keynes told: any recovery will stall, and unemployment will rise. The mistakes of the past will be needlessly repeated, but those that make them will not have to suffer the consequences.

And that would not be good enough.

Hang on Lads, I’ve had a Great Idea

So ends the literal cliffhanger at the end of The Italian Job. We never get to know about the idea that Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) has just thought up. And this makes for endless fun, where we can guess what happens after the credits roll.

The concept of the Great Idea that doesn’t get explained is one that politicians must find attractive: no explaining means that the punters don’t need to waste time over that explanation, that there’s no need to worry or think about it. Trust us, we’ve got a Great Idea.

So it is that I find David Cameron’s slogan “a man with a plan” both intriguing and suspicious. It’s a slick and memorable strapline – you’d expect nothing less with Andy Coulson at his side – but it doesn’t tell you what he’d actually do if the electorate presented him with the opportunity to govern.

To find a clue, we have to go back to the last time a Tory government replaced a Labour one – 1979. In the run up to that year’s general election, the Tories made much of the “winter of discontent”: one can hardly blame them for pushing open that door. There was the “Labour isn’t working” poster campaign. What there was not was any warning of what was really in store.

Had the electorate known of the swingeing cuts in public spending, the almost doubling of VAT, of over reliance on monetary policy with 17% interest rates, of inflation peaking at over 20%, and ultimately an unemployment level reaching beyond three million, and remaining there for the rest of the 1980s, they may not have voted as they did.

So perhaps this time the more enquiring journos will at least try and get to the heart of David Cameron’s plan. It may well be a fruitless quest. The noises coming from the Tory Party suggest that nothing has been learned in the intervening thirty years, and that an economy turning down will be made worse by rounds of spending cuts, inducing yet more unemployment, reducing economic activity yet further.

If only the budget were brought into balance. It’s a mantra that some still believe. I will return to this subject with the kind of examples with which today’s politicians should be familiar, if not necessarily comfortable.

Thursday 16 April 2009

Mr Green’s Gate

The media’s attention moves on today to the news that Tory MP Damien Green will not be facing charges over information leaked to him by civil servant Christopher Galley. So that brings the matter to an end, does it?

No, of course it doesn’t.

Not least because Green himself, and his party, do not want the matter to be brought to an end. They want the story to have its shelf life prolonged. This suits their line that, under the present government, there has supposedly been an erosion of civil liberties. Further, Green himself has put the blame for the police becoming involved at the government’s door.

Have civil liberties been eroded during the past twelve years? I’m personally concerned that catching a police officer in the shot may allow the forces of law and order to arrest me for deploying a digital camera with intent, but it hasn’t yet happened – and this is the problem for the Tories and organisations such as Liberty. For the vast majority of citizens, there has been no tangible change. No, I don’t agree with increasing the time that suspects can be held without trial – it’s pointless trimming in the direction of the legendarily foul mouthed editor of the Daily Mail – but this also does not impinge on most lives.

Neither do I consider there to be any value in the Identity Card scheme – this is, plainly, a waste of time and money. But here too, most ordinary folk are not affected.

So it is difficult for any political party – I say “any” as the Lib Dems are also deeply sceptical of the government’s direction here – to keep this story at the top of the news agenda. This brings me to the second of Green’s assertions: the inference that the government are behind his arrest. Think I’m misrepresenting him? Here is Green in his own words, quoted by the BBC:

"That [his action] has led to the first arrest of an opposition politician for doing his job since Britain became a democracy ... I cannot think of a better symbol of an out-of-touch, authoritarian, failing government that has been in power much too long."

His arrest a symbol of this government? What other conclusion can be drawn, other than that he is pinning the arrest on that government? So, fair enough, let’s see him stand that one up with some solid facts. Having done that, I for one would have no problem with Pa Broon and Jacqui Smith facing the consequences of their actions.

However, the flip side should also hold true: if Green cannot stand up his story, then he should say so, and like Pa Broon, be expected to say sorry. We may be in for a long wait.

The Sadness of Priorities

We all have to prioritise our lives. And it was through this prioritisation that I made last night’s Thai curry. This was as enjoyable as it was hot – as you’d expect when using a Penang paste, with red chillies as its lead ingredient.

Organisations also have to prioritise, and that includes those in the media. Stories have shelf lives. Some may have longer lives than others, but ultimately the whole thing moves on to other stories. So it has been, and clearly to the dislike of some in the blogosphere, with Smeargate (alternative titles in yesterday’s posts, in case anyone’s interested).

Why should there be such a dislike of how the media mainstream prioritises stories? Here the blogosphere reaches the limit of its power, singly or collectively: the original story was newsworthy enough – and serious enough – to command the highest billing, and as a result of the resultant furore there was a resignation from within Downing Street. There is a feeling among some bloggers that there should have been more resignations, with rather more folks involved, but the simple and sad fact is that not enough concrete facts could be marshalled to this end. So the story slipped down the list of media organisation priorities.

Equally sad was the problem that many in the blogosphere had with accepting that Smeargate had dropped off the news radar. The thirst for more scalps needed to be sated: if the mainstream would not keep the story high on the agenda, there must be some kind of sinister conspiracy at work. There wasn’t, of course, and here the blogosphere does itself no favours: out comes the usual, and slightly paranoid, thought that the government, BBC and Guardian (together with any other organisations that let the story drop) are moving as one to conceal some kind of truth – although what kind of truth that is, we don’t know, as nobody has managed to stand any story up.

And, in any case, even bloggers have to move on – today we have the fallout from yet another gate – Greengate. Mustn’t be left behind, eh?

Madrid - the Sights of the City

I’m still running a bit late on the travel front: it was last month that I spent a most agreeable few days in Madrid, a city which gives every sign that it could stage the Olympics tomorrow, if recently completed infrastructure projects are anything to go by.

Once again, there is no need for an exchange rate health warning: if you really have to spend lots of money, you can, but evening eats for under ten Euro are easy to find, and B&B in a suitably grand Edificio on the Gran Via can be had for fifty Euro a night.

And when it comes to sightseeing, you can cover the city without having to expend more than a little shoe leather. True, there are the Thyssen, Prado and Reina Sofia galleries, and very fine their collections are, but these are optional stops on the tourist circuit.

Here is a personal tour of the city in pictures; and a few tips and warnings follow.

Most folks will arrive at Barajas airport. It’s a big airport: there is a lot of walking to do, whatever the mode of onward travel.

If you must use taxis, remember that the driver will more than likely make an additional charge for luggage, and if your case is in the boot, it may be locked in until you pay up.

The Metro is safe, modern and clean. The airport line (8) uses modern space train sets. There is a one Euro supplement for the two airport stations, which makes the cost of a journey downtown a whole two Euro (bit cheaper than London, then).

There are city tour buses – at a suitable premium – but most of the sights are within walking distance from one another. Get a map and use the ordinary city transport.

Some sights demand that bit more time. Allocate half a day for the Retiro Park, and do it during the week.

Transport anoraks can check out new projects like the Parla Tram and regret that, not even in London, can the UK manage anything similar nowadays.

And finally – the flip side of the UK versus USA rule applies: just because they don’t speak English as their first language doesn’t mean they aren’t our friends. Enjoy!

Wednesday 15 April 2009

Dolly the Slaphead

Twice recently I’ve declined to mention Derek Draper. But at the third attempt I’ve been foiled.

A friend has emailed to put me straight on the subject. He writes:

“I would like to mention Derek Draper.

He was a fine centre forward in the baldy tradition of the 1970s and served Chester City well over several seasons in the old 4th division.”

Now that you won’t see in any other blog. So it’s an exclusive, folks!

May the Blogs be With You

As he surveys the fallout from emailgate (or McBridegate, or Smeargate, or even Redraggate), David Cameron might initially feel rather pleased. But young Dave, as befits anyone who took a First in PPE, is not daft. He knows that there is a difference between a body of opinion that opposes the government, and one that supports the opposition. Thus the blogosphere.

Blogs are not a new phenomenon. But they are a recent one. Check out the timelines: in 1997, the last time the party in power changed, we had the Web, and we had email, but blogs were not yet on the radar. So there was no body of opinion expressed in the manner of present-day blogs organised against the government of “Shagger” Major, although the feeling may have been there.

Were there to be a change of governing party, what would happen to the present loose coalition of anti-Labour blogs? The worry for Cameron and his pals is that, put directly, we don’t know. At present, there is a commonality between blogs that are generally Tory supporting, and those which are, more or less, looking to inflict damage on Pa Broon and his entourage.

I’ve previously considered that, on the strength of noises coming from the Tories, the country under their control could be in for spending cuts and increased unemployment. In this scenario, any coalition of bloggers featuring Tory supporters and government haters will quickly come under pressure as an incumbent Tory party has to confront a series of difficult choices, losing popularity and membership as it does so.

Tory supporting blogs will face the choice of becoming apologists, or breaking with the party mainstream. Government hating ones will have to choose between retaining their credibility and losing it – and I predict here and now that this choice won’t detain the main protagonists for long. If the mood in the country becomes anti, then the blogs that do not address that sentiment will cease to lead that particular corner of the blogosphere.

Use the blogs, Dave? That’s the problem – you can’t.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Most of the so-called “Election Communications” from the Crewe and Nantwich by-election went in the bin. The only thought applied was whether the things were too glossy to go in the grey bin, in which case they went into the black one. Thus the politicos did their bit for recycling.

However, the most jaw-droppingly optimistic leaflet has been retained. And it comes courtesy of the Lib Dems.

On first glance, it looks like a proper newspaper, the “Crewe Courier”, complete with silhouette of steam locomotive (note to Chris Rennard: none of these have been built in Crewe since 1958). But it’s the headline that takes the biscuit.


And there was a smiling candidate posing for the camera along with “Shagger” Clegg.

The truth, alas, was more prosaic: the Lib Dems do well in local elections in Crewe (they currently hold two of the three seats in the St John’s ward) but have regularly failed to do better than third in parliamentary ones. This was no different.

Still, give a whistle, eh?

Shop Soiled

Anyone thinking that online shopping is boring and humourless need look no further than this selection from Amazon, which a friend of mine passed on:


The book itself, in these less than certain times for the property market, has a rather optimistic title, but the thing to check out is the review further down the page.

A word of advice: put the coffee down first.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Class Warriors?

It’s good to know where the target is, and that it’s clearly marked. Then it can be more easily and accurately reached. So it is with the concept of class war. This is an area on which the Tories are extremely sensitive, and so they and their cheerleaders have addressed it robustly. Such attacks, they reckon, are the politics of envy. They are, sad to say, totally wrong.

Unfortunately, the Tories have been reading from the wrong book. Their assumption is that their leader, David Cameron, and his chums Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, and the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne (heir to the seventeenth Baronet) are envied by the lumpen proletariat merely because they have had a good education and obtained good degrees from a good university. It’s just jealousy.

The truth is not only rather different, but will make uncomfortable reading for young Dave and his pals. Because the book to which they should have paid attention is not Das Kapital, but The Theory of the Leisure Class. And therefore the tendency against which they need to guard is not jealousy, but ridicule. It’s not about envy of that good education, but ridicule of the tendency of (for instance) Buller Men to indulge in acts of conspicuous consumption.

The idea that they might be thought of in Veblenian terms, as a kind of anthropological curiosity, will not be easy or comfortable to accept. Moreover, the focus on conspicuous consumption leads directly to their being thought of in the same way as Premiership footballers, Reality TV “stars”, minor slebs and other nouveaux riches. Average folk don’t envy them: the gossip columns and glossy mags may provide a few minutes’ interest around the water cooler, but nothing more.

Still need convincing? Harold Macmillan didn’t need any reminder after seeing Peter Cook personally and very directly ridicule him. Monty Python gave us the Upper Class Twit Of The Year. And Boris’ reception on Have I Got News For You wasn’t exactly reverential. The spirit of Thorstein Veblen is out there, ready to bring another generation of conspicuous consumers down to earth.

[I’ll consider the so-called Class War in taxation terms later]

Reality Check

Today’s big event? Packs of peppers are half price at Asda!

Uh? What? But there’s still an email row!

So what? Riddle me this: how many shoppers, on average, pass through Crewe Asda on a weekday? Now, how many of this non-trivial number of people give a flying foxtrot about Damian McBride, Tom Watson (allegedly), or any of the rest of this particular dramatis personae? Then, how many of them are watching their pennies and up for a bargain? The latter number might be significantly larger. So they might just prefer their politicians to be concentrating their efforts in that direction.

It might also be that your average voter is rapidly getting turned off the whole sordid business. Does anyone outside the Westminster village or that particular corner of the blogosphere care whether Gordon Brown expresses regret or says sorry? Worse, we all know that, even if he did say sorry, there would be a queue of Tory MPs ready to shout him down and say something along the lines of “that’s not good enough – we want bigger and better sorry and he’s also got to jump through all these hoops that we just thought up”.

The “hoops” would include the sacking of anyone linked to the emails that have been trailed in the Screws this weekend. So who was copied in? You don’t know? Never mind, make it up. A game of between two and two hundred players, no need to score a six to start, hours of harmless fun. Harmless because the number of folk not switching off and going over to Asda to do the shopping rapidly diminishes. Those left may then blame the BBC, the Guardian, and any other convenient media target, while failing to realise that some folk in this world have a life.

Anyway, back to the peppers. Thai chicken curry tomorrow evening, made of course with coconut milk, and with Thai sticky rice on the side. There’s more to life than politics. Hint.

[No, I’m still not mentioning Derek Draper. So there]

Dig This

It was back in September than I visited Berlin, but I receive a reminder of my journey to Schönefeld Airport all too often. The latest came over Easter weekend.

Why so? Simple. Network Rail are digging up the network yet again. After all the years of disruption, there was the thought that we might get the mythical seven days a week railway on the West Coast Main Line. But over Easter, that line was closed south of Crewe, with buses ferrying punters to Birmingham. Also it was closed to the north, so buses for folks travelling to Warrington, Wigan and Preston. The closure to the south was still there on Easter Monday.

Strangely, in other countries there seems to be an ability to run services even when there is engineering work going on. My journey back to the airport in Berlin involved changing to the S-Bahn at Adlershof: here you can see that this service continues to run while construction work is in progress.

After the journey back from Berlin? I arrived at Liverpool Airport to find that the journey back to Crewe had to be made via a bus into central Liverpool, and even then it had to conclude by coach. Train service with no trains involved.

The trains that have been running through Crewe over Easter have been busy: given that those using them are being asked, over time, to pay more for their journeys, it might be a good idea to allow more of them to use the train throughout. And with a minimum of diversion.

Monday 13 April 2009

Horse through Open Stable Door Horror

My new laptop runs Windows Vista. So what? Well, for starters, it isn’t as vulnerable as older operating systems to deliberate hacking, or users’ carelessness. Any bells ringing yet?

Here’s an opinion and nothing more (after all, I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of the Official Secrets Act): there is a strong possibility that desktop IT in Downing Street is based around Windows XP Service Pack 2, with Internet Explorer 6 as the browser of choice. And probably not the latest IE6 either.

And here’s another opinion: it might be a pain, but keeping up to date with the monthly Microsoft patch updates is, on balance, A Good Thing. I don’t have a comprehensive list to hand of everything from the past couple of years, but what I do know is that a whole raft of what are commonly termed “vulnerabilities” have been addressed during that period.

And finally ... the phrase “cut and paste” might sound innocuous, but a whole lot of information can be transferred from source to target in such operations.


Sunday 12 April 2009

British Broadcasting Clearout?

Here’s a health warning for Guardian haters: I’m about to reference yet another one of their stories. And, for good measure, it’s about another deeply subversive organisation, the BBC. In this article, Marina Hyde looks across the Atlantic at Fox TV, a creation that could only happen in a land where there is no equivalent to the Beeb, and isn’t going to be.

It’s all too relevant: so many across the political spectrum, as well as commentators in the print and other broadcast media, and especially the blogosphere, don’t like the Beeb. They want it to be at least smaller, and often to be either broken up or simply removed. Following such an act, there would be an awfully big void to fill. So what would be put in its place?

If Ms Hyde’s article is broadly accurate, then the phrase “dumbing down” would be an understatement of some scale. More, we know the political direction of anything called Fox. Way to go, Rupe!

I don’t concur totally with the detail, though: the Beeb needs to stop any recurrence of the Brand/Ross business, not through being cowed by outside pressure, but because effing and blinding, and phone pranks, are not “edgy”, “pushing the envelope” or even necessarily funny. Such actions merely allow the likes of the Daily Mail, where effing and blinding is an ambiguous area, to kick the BBC to its own advantage.

And one final thought, for those who oppose the licence fee: the income of Sky is far greater than that of the BBC. So where is the original programming coming from?

Quick Fire Round

That’s Quick as in Bob. And fired he certainly has been. The Assistant Commissioner put the ball in his own net by letting anyone with a half decent digital camera snap a supposedly secret document he would have done better to keep covered.

The announcement of his departure was pre-empted by Mayor of London Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, apparently without giving the Home Secretary or the Commissioner of the Met first go. Boris then followed up his announcement by assuring the gathering that there wasn’t anything political in it, that the Tories hadn’t pushed him.

Oh what a giveaway.

Had there been no political pressure, why go to such lengths to trowel on the denial? Quick angered the Tories over the Damien Green arrest; he then embarrassed Jacqui Smith over terrorism. Therefore he lost the support of both government and opposition. They’re both political entities. What kind of pressure do they therefore generate?

But the worrying thing is the way in which Boris Johnson has given the impression, deliberately or otherwise, that he is running the Met. He isn’t. And he should not be so suggesting.

In the meantime, the anti terror operation that Bob Quick was overseeing has gone ahead. Hopefully the intelligence will be better this time than with the botched operation against two innocent men in Forest Gate, where the impression was given that their only crimes were “Possessing beards with intent” and “Reading the Qur’an with malice aforethought”.

The catch all of “Walking on the cracks in the pavement” was no doubt allowed to lay on file.

Damian – Bad Omen

Cast your mind back to July 10 1995. No, not a Major administration sleazefast, but the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Guest that evening: Hugh Grant. Priceless opening line from Leno: “What the hell were you thinking?”

What indeed. So what was Damian McBride thinking? Was he thinking?

All the major political parties indulge in what may politely be called questionable tactics, mainly during election campaigns, and otherwise on an ad hoc basis. Politicians themselves are, to an extent, fair game: the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the seventeenth Baronet, being a prime example over Tavernagate (or whatever title you give to the Rothschild and Deripaska business), and his refusal to withdraw his autism slur against Pa Broon.

And that is where it all should stay. Any idea of extending such tactics to Frances Osborne, merely because she is married to George, is out of order. Full stop, no qualification needed, no asterisks, no footnotes.

More, it appears that McBride had been communicating his, er, information using the resources of Downing Street. That is also out of order (full stop, as above).

Yet until yesterday, Pa Broon had been apparently happy to continue having this fellow inside the tent. Apart from remembering an alleged nugget of Lyndon Johnson scatology on the subject, there seems no good reason to have someone of such character – or lack of it – on board.

Once again, the judgment of Gordon Brown appears suspect. I considered this last month in this post – and, having observed events over the last few days, have had my misgivings reinforced superbly.

[Anyone disappointed at the non-appearance of Derek Draper in this post should bear in mind that making a cuppa and putting the washing out are far more important]

Saturday 11 April 2009

Lies, damn Lies, and Campaign Leaflets

I’ve got a lot of time for the Tory party. Oh yes I have. And to prove it, I have given pride of place to one of their leaflets from the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. This pamphlet is entitled “Change”, and has this jaw-dropping first paragraph:

“As the by-election campaign turns nasty, Conservative candidate Edward Timpson has chosen to rise above the tactics of the Labour campaign”

It’s a pity that the rest of the Tory team didn’t follow suit. On Page 3 of this priceless leaflet is “Out and about in Crewe and Nantwich – Edward Timpson’s campaign diary”, and the entry for Thursday 8 May caught my eye:

“It is Gwyneth Dunwoody’s funeral today and so, as a mark of respect, we paused our campaigning. She was a real one-off who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. My thoughts are with her family”

Why should this stand out, apart from the faux respect for someone whose reselection he was whingeing about only months earlier?

Why indeed. On the morning of Thursday 8 May, I had to negotiate my way round one Edward Timpson (the man with marginally more charisma than a Burton’s dummy) en route to the station. Timpson and his supporters were, er, campaigning outside. After I had declined the offer of a leaflet, he spluttered “have a nice day” as I walked on. There’s an orator in the making.

I detect the hand of Fat Eric in the wording of the leaflet: note the use of the word “paused”. This can be interpreted in more than one way, in case an inconveniently minded hack were to pick up on it: a “pause” does not have to be for a day, does it?

“Mark of respect”? Pass the sick bag.

The Rough Game

That phrase was coined not about today’s politics, but those of the 1940s. So it might be concluded that nothing much changes.

Yes and no. The nature of the game, as witness Adlai Stevenson’s probing of the character of one Richard Milhous Nixon in the run up to the 1956 US Presidential Election, is as before. Perhaps we in the UK didn’t get as direct as electoral participants in the USA until more recently, but there are, especially in high profile contests, seemingly no holds barred.

So to today’s news: the blogosphere is filled with traffic (that’s as in the small amount of news and the much larger amount of comment) about an alleged Labour dirty tricks email campaign. The intended victims include the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the seventeenth Baronet. I am not surprised. It was, after all, Osborne who smeared the Prime Minister with the suggestion of autism: that one will be in the book for payback.

Not that I am suggesting such behaviour is legitimate: merely that it’s entirely understandable. It’s nothing new. What is new is the speed at which events can unfold nowadays.

For many years, the conduit for this kind of thing would have been Private Eye. But the Eye is print media, and the alleged campaign is an electronic one. Also, the Eye comes out every fortnight, with the next issue published on April 17, so routing anything that way would have to wait: the blogosphere is there now.

Also, the blogosphere is a law unto itself. And it will be so, whatever the stripe of the governing party.

Meanwhile, the real world intrudes: shopping takes precedence this afternoon. Priorities, priorities.

Friday 10 April 2009

Kings of the Talgo

Spelling mistake it is not. Since the 1950s, many of the Spanish rail network’s premier passenger services have been provided using products of Patentes Talgo. At first, these light and articulated trains were designed for good speeds on less than ideally maintained track. The low centre of gravity also helped.

Later, Talgo developed variable gauge axles. So what? Well, the network in Spain and Portugal uses a wider gauge than that elsewhere in western Europe. So changing trains at the French border, or waiting while coaches were jacked up for bogies to be changed, was the norm. The new technology meant that trains could run between Spain and France, merely by going through the gauge changer at the border.

So when the Spanish high speed network was developed using what we would call standard gauge, this was not as perverse as it seemed. Trains operating only on the new network, initially between Madrid and Sevilla, could use off the shelf technology: in the first instance, that of the French Train à Grande Vitesse, or TGV. For trains that had to complete their journey on the broad gauge network, Talgo once again upgraded their offering to provide sets that could operate at up to 220 km/h on the new network – and so not get in the way – and then, after going through the gauge changer, also use the broad gauge one.

Also, to make journeys a little more comfortable, Talgo developed a tilt system to enable curves to be taken a little faster. This system is passive – which means that there is no need for any extra equipment to push the coach bodies into the tilt position. This also keeps the weight down.

In a country that has decided to be serious about rail travel, it’s useful to have companies that have an equally serious commitment to establishing a technology, moving it on, and doing the problem solving along the way.

[A Talgo set, doing the perversely Spanish move of backing in to a terminal station, can be seen here, and Talgo’s latest variable gauge train here]

Which Side of the Wall?

In the Middle East, you would expect to hear of women being told that they shouldn’t have the vote, or run for public office. But would you expect that story to be coming out of Israel?

The group photo of Binyamin Netenyahu and his cabinet may look harmless enough, but it’s proved too much for two Israeli journals, where the two women members have been airbrushed out. Here is the story as reported in last Saturday’s Guardian.

As one commentator noted, the ultra orthodox sector in Israel “ ... does not believe that women should have a public life, or even vote”.

I personally found the phrase “creeping religiosity” worrying, but that, ultimately, is the business of Israel and its citizens.

But it shows that antediluvian attitudes towards women are not confined to only one of the Abrahamic religions.

Spanish Practices

Why are the Spanish so keen on new rail links? What is it with higher speeds? They must be perverse – look at the terrain!

Distances, for starters. It’s 490 kilometres from Madrid to Valencia, and a heck of a lot further from the capital to Barcelona. Also, the “inherited” network isn’t exactly awash with capacity – much of it outside the largest cities is still single track. So new build is the Big Thing. Consider one example.

Alacant (or Alicante in Castellano) looks to have a well appointed terminus and approach, until you realise that the two tracks serve two different routes. Curving away to the left, and without the benefit of electrification, is one track which arcs round to the waterfront station of San Gabriel, where trains must reverse to continue their journey to Elx and Murcia. Despite this line being almost completely single track, on weekdays it often has to cope with two or even three trains each way every hour. Timekeeping is actually quite good – speed is not.

The track to the right twists and turns as it climbs up to the plain, past the towns of Elda and Villena. This, too, the route to Madrid and Valencia, is single track. Only after passing the wayside station at Caudete does it branch into two spurs which then join the upgraded double track line from Albacete to Valencia – which is straight enough for speeds of up to 220 km/h. So you get decent speeds for part of the way, but timekeeping on the single track part is not good: I travelled from Alacant to Valencia and back twice recently, and only one of four sectors was on time. The other three were at least ten minutes late.

Capacity for more trains, consistent timekeeping, and the kind of speed that brings cities within three hours of Madrid. These clear objectives are being carried through into the program of new build rail links. Also, the Spanish have no problem with their new railways being built to a gauge which is different to their inherited network. How so? I will return to this subject with an explanation.

Fixing The Roof – Part 2

I’ve previously considered the Tory concepts of “fixing the roof while the sun is shining” and “living within our means”, concluding that these soundbites are in fact a cover for increased unemployment in the public sector, at least in the immediate term. Here I’ll show that any increase in public sector unemployment is bad news for the wider – private – sector as well.

To continue the example from Part 1, in Crewe, many people across a wide range of skills are employed at Leighton Hospital. They buy or rent property, use public transport, buy and maintain cars, shop for food, clothing and household goods, are entertained at cinemas and in clubs, enjoy eating out or takeaways. Most, if not all, of these purchases are from the private sector. The businesses concerned employ people, and these employees also buy services from other businesses.

Any reduction in the public sector workforce means that there is less demand for property, cars, household goods – even less demand for food, in money terms, as loss of income drives a move from premium to utility. The simple and chilling conclusion for the private sector is that they, too, will suffer a reduction in employment as the public sector shrinks.

And the reduction in employment can be made worse if the reduction in public spending is made when the wider economy is turning down, or has already turned down. This is, broadly, what happened in the first years of the Thatcher government. There were calls for restraint and patience, and headlines screamed the necessity of the approach in phrases such as “If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working”. Such calls and phrasings were invariably sourced from those who, at the time, enjoyed a regular income.

It’s always easier to call for belt tightening if the belt concerned belongs to someone else.

Thursday 9 April 2009

Brute Farce

Some journos, you know, will do exactly what it says on the reputational tin. Peter Hitchens is one. John Pilger is another.

And then there is Bruce Anderson, aka The Brute.

Bruce has been giving full value for money, as witnessed by Iain Dale (and there is no blogger greater than he). See Iain’s, er, observations here.

I thought it was bloody funny. But then, I didn’t have to put up with the SOB.

Not A Fair Cop?

The case of Ian Tomlinson is still in the news. Adding to the Guardian reports is a piece from another deeply subversive organisation called Channel 4. The report on the C4 website can be seen here.

Fortunately, the officer at the forefront of the incident has now owned up. I’d like to think that this was an act of selfless honesty, rather than an acknowledgement of impending identification.

I’ll be following the case further. In this, I will not be alone.

He’s a Clown, Young Man!

I never did put the time into understanding the way in which the Italians went through so many governments in such a short time, nor did I figure out the number of political parties and the way they came together in seemingly temporary and often fractious coalition.

And now it seems I won’t need to – well, not for the time being. Italy is moving towards a two party system, with the creation of Freedom People, a single right-wing party. This includes the heirs to the fascist tradition of Benito Mussolini. The Guardian has the story here.

So my nickname of “Duce” for Silvio Berlusconi will gather real substance. There are other parallels.

Berlusconi is, like Mussolini, a faintly ridiculous figure, and vain with it. Both have reputations that have been inflated by propaganda; in Berlusconi’s case, it’s entirely predictable, as he owns the media doing the hyping.

And, I would suggest, both were, and in Berlusconi’s case, are, bad news for Italy.

The ability of Berlusconi to demonstrate that he is out of touch with reality, while planting his foot firmly in his mouth, was demonstrated superbly as he visited the town of l’Aquila in the wake of Monday’s earthquake. The people, he said, had everything they needed (forgetting that this did not include all their dead or missing relatives), and then told that, for them, it was like a camping weekend.

Yeah, right.

Cloughie would have figured out “Duce” Berlusconi in one. See title.

Wednesday 8 April 2009

New Year on the Waterfront

Yes, it was three months ago, so I’m running a bit late. After putting up with two doses of airport security, and a short, sharp wake event on take-off from CDG, I fetched up in one of my favourite cities, Lisbon (don’t mention the Treaty).

And the exchange rate was not far over parity: very little more than EUR 1.02 to the Pound from hitting the Multibanco downstairs at the recently refurbished Estação do Rossio. So was it all a bit expensive?


What about eating out? Well, first evening I stopped by at Paulo Marques’ agreeable O Marques restaurant – just north of the Rossio – where a meal including half a litre of pretty reasonable red wine cost less than nine Euro. That was very much par for the course. Travel wasn’t expensive: a day pass for the Metro and all the trams (ride the 12 and 28, and avoid the tourist ones) was around EUR 3.50. Staying at a Residencial in the central Baixa district will set you back EUR 45 a night for singles, and 65 for doubles.

But the New Year crowds?

It was certainly busy in the Praça do Comércio on Lisbon’s waterfront: there was the obligatory sound stage, and makeshift beer and food outlets, but the crowd was an agreeable one, mainly of locals. Old Lisbon is actually quite a small city – there’s sprawl, and lots of it, but not in the centre.

Bad behaviour? Apart from some climbing over the tram shelters, and pushing in the beer queues, not much. And, as midnight approached, many got out their bottles of sparkling wine and plastic cups to toast the New Year. I was briefly surprised, thinking that in the UK, all that would have been confiscated and the area cordoned off.

Come to think of it, where were the police? They were there, but it was all very low key.

The fireworks were enjoyable, and then the crowd dispersed, most walking back to their apartments, with the more adventurous heading for the Metro.

Not at all what you might expect in a capital city. And where in the UK can you stroll around on New Year’s Eve without a jacket?

[Crowds gathering on the Rua Augusta here, warming up the Praça do Comércio here, and a glimpse of the fireworks here]

A Plonker like Rodney

The police are in the mire again. I’m not surprised.

Last week, a 47 year old newspaper seller called Ian Tomlinson died after suffering a heart attack. Since his death, it has been revealed that he had been, how shall I put it, in contact with the police a few minutes beforehand. The video – shot by a New York fund manager – doesn’t make for comfortable viewing. Once again, it is the Guardian that has the story, here.

Some will look for parallels with the de Menezes shooting, especially as the police did not initially admit that there had been contact between them and Mr Tomlinson. I recalled an incident rather further away, and some years ago.

Back in 1991, a man called Rodney King found himself on the end of a beating by officers from the Los Angeles Police Department. What LAPD’s finest did not know at the time was that their beating was being filmed. This video also did not make for comfortable viewing.

In both cases, the police had had a hard time of it beforehand: King’s car had been chased for some time before his arrest (by several cars and even a helicopter), and the officers in London had no doubt had their fill of the awkward squad during the G20 protests.

But that doesn’t justify assault.

Assault which leads to the death of the person assaulted routinely results in a charge of manslaughter; this is what happened in the case of Tony Virasami, who was thus convicted after punching a 57 year old man in a south London supermarket, as reported by the BBC here.

So many justifiably concerned people are now watching this case, to see if there is a suitably even handed approach in the case of Ian Tomlinson. Not because of any wish to distrust the police – but of wanting to be able to show the opposite case.

Because if you can’t trust the police, then who can you trust?