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Monday 29 June 2009

Yet Another Question of Judgment

More than once, I’ve pondered where Pa Broon comes up short in the field of politics. And each time it comes down to judgment. And today he’s at it again, setting out what looks suspiciously like the beta version of an Election Manifesto, although, as the BBC’s Nick Robinson has noted, without the red rose of Labour on the front.

It’s called “Rebuilding Britain’s Future”, although as Robinson has observed, a more candid substitution would be to change “Britain’s” to “Labour’s”. Tough on benefits. Council housing waiting lists. Royal Mail sell-off moved discreetly to the back burner. The result being, no doubt, that Pa Broon can then set out his position on what he hopes will be the correct side of the line between cuts, and, er, cuts – in other words, to paint his plans as the best bet for moving the country out of recession, while trying to show that the Tories will be cutting more and deeper, this meant to frighten floating voters into returning to the Labour fold.

But it does sound, well, a little tired. Haven’t we been here before? Perhaps it’s the inevitable result of one party being in power for over twelve years. So what’s new with the competition? Well, Young Dave has been telling his latest news conference – as also noted by Nick Robinson, who’s been busy today – that if they don’t prepare the Great Unwashed for forthcoming cuts, there’ll be rioting in the streets.

On this, I agree totally with Cameron, and because we’ve been here before: the 1979 Tory Manifesto didn’t tell the electorate what they were going to do when they got their hands on the levers of power, which was to enact a series of savage public spending cuts (yes, including the Endurance). The result: there were indeed riots, and across the country, too. How Dave proposes to talk that one down will be interesting to see.

Because any substantial cuts in public spending will mean significant reductions in services, and folks losing their jobs. The idea that around 10% can be lopped off without any real hardship – and I’ll concede that this mischief can’t be laid only at the door of the Tory Party – is dangerous nonsense. If everything could be done for 10% less, it would already be happening. No Government would spray the difference up the wall merely for the sake of it.

Still, weather’s nice. Mustn’t grumble.

Sunday 28 June 2009

You Say You Want A Referendum (2)

Yes, as already discussed, the UK can hold a Referendum. So why should we have one or more of these? Also, what interest groups are involved, and what do they seek to gain? And why do the issues under discussion need to be decided in this way, rather than as part of a General Election campaign?

Let’s take the last point first. Normally, any kind of change for which Parliament will seek to legislate is put to the electorate as part of a Party’s General Election manifesto. The Party will then campaign on that manifesto. This was certainly the case with the Heath Government of 1970, which made a manifesto commitment to the then EEC, and then took the UK into Europe in 1973.

So that’s that, then? Well, no, because as mentioned earlier, the lack of any UK written constitution does not rule out putting questions to the electorate in a Referendum, even when the original commitment – as with Europe – was made as part of a General Election campaign. Neither is there any rule, or even guidance, as to how momentous or important an issue has to be in order to require putting to the electorate in a Referendum. So no issue is ruled in or out – therefore the reason why we should have one is, at best, some kind of balance between the public mood and the willingness of the Government of the day to offer the option.

So who’s interested? Ah well. Here we encounter a truly dubious media convocation: News Corporation, whose head man Rupert Murdoch will seemingly do whatever it takes to undermine the EU (because it won’t do what he wants) is in the vanguard. Along for the ride is the Maily Telegraph, wedded to a delusional view of the UK, and the Rothermere press, in the vocal form of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, who may or may not be anti-EU, but whose rationale is to feed the Daily Mail’s readers with the diet he perceives they crave – and that means putting the boot in to those rotten foreigners, while offering bargain trips to romantic Paris by Eurostar on the next page.

And what is the issue that they deem so significant that it can only be decided by Referendum? Well, anything remotely EU related, it seems: there was an attempt to define the Maastricht Treaty as such an issue, but “Shagger” Major, to his credit, saw this off by arguing that the UK had secured a variety of “opt-outs”. More recently, the proposed EU Constitution was a prime Referendum target, until it was dropped, but the “Amending Treaty” that followed soon found itself in the crosshairs.

The clamour was made all the louder by the commitment by Tony Blair to put the original Constitution to the electorate in a Referendum. Why? Only he can answer that one. Rather like Pa Broon’s “British Jobs for British Workers”, he may come to wish he’d never said it. The pressure continues, especially as the Irish are having one. Yes, let’s look at how the Irish do things European – that comes next.

Intolerance – 2

Perhaps it’s because Wales is only around 25 miles away, and it could be that the regular experience of visiting: hearing Welsh folk speak Welsh is to me no big deal. That’s what they speak, and if they want to talk to one another in that language – or any other – then good for them.

However, as two unfortunate Welsh speakers have found, not everyone in England is so relaxed, or tolerant. As reported in the Guardian, they had the temerity to have a conversation in their own language in the innocuously titled Grange Gifts, in the Isle of Wight resort of Shanklin, which led to the owner asking them to speak in English, then throwing them out of the shop.

This might look a bit like something out of Fawlty Towers, but for those of us who lived in Bradford in the late 70s and early 80s, it brings back an uncomfortable feeling. Because demanding that someone “speak English” was the way in which the local braindeath would often choose to intimidate those attempting conversation in Hindi or Urdu.

Meanwhile, the proprietors of Grange Gifts might just find that they, too, are reminded of Fawlty Towers. And it could be the episode that, for so many years, was not in demand with the networks in Germany.

Saturday 27 June 2009

You Say You Want A Referendum?

Some politicians want one. Many more in the tabloid press agree with them. Given a suitably sensitive subject – Europe, Europe and Europe, but not necessarily in that order – there will be someone in the press or the blogosphere telling that the only way to settle the issue is to have a Referendum. So why don’t we have one?

Well, why not? On the issue of whether or not we can have a Referendum, there should be no problem: the UK, not having a written constitution, neither provides for referenda, nor proscribes them. So, if it ain’t banned, it must be allowed. And if it’s allowed, there must be previous referenda to show the kinds of reasons for having one, and the way we do them, right?

Yes and no. Unfortunately, the Referendum cupboard only has one item on the shelf, and studying it does not leave us much wiser – except to demonstrate that party politics changes little over time. We’ve had a Referendum only once, in 1975, although those of a Eurosceptic persuasion will be glad to see that Europe was, as now, the issue.

The 1975 vote was won by the “yes” campaign, that “yes” being to confirm the UK’s membership of the then EEC. This illustrates one potential hazard: in a democracy, the vote may produce a variety of outcomes, one or more of which may not prove agreeable to those agitating for that vote. Right now, anyone advocating a Referendum over Europe – the current target is the Lisbon Treaty – wants the vote to produce one outcome only, that outcome being rejection of the Lisbon accord. And part of that advocacy is the belief of victory.

More significantly, the 1975 Referendum had little to do with any wish to give the electorate more say on the issue of Europe. It was a convenient device for Harold Wilson to use in order to hold together an increasingly fractious Labour Party. For all those in the party who favoured EEC membership, such as Wilson himself, and Roy Jenkins, there were those who were implacably opposed, like Barbara Castle and Tony Benn. Wilson allowed his pro and anti MPs to campaign for their chosen outcome, the idea being that they might be less individually fractious after the electorate had had their say.

Wilson kept his party together, and the idea of another Referendum was not raised seriously for many years afterwards. But now it’s back, with an uneasy convocation of the antediluvian with those who just want to spread some instability for their own benefit. Thus the Daily Telegraph, which gives the impression that it has still not been reconciled to the loss of India, finds itself in the same corner as Rupert Murdoch, whose business ambition has been blunted by the dastardly Eurocrats.

But none of that stops us having another Referendum, if we want one, does it? Of course not. I’ll have another look at this one soon.

Watching Da Ali C Show – 2

Hardly had I posted my thoughts on the potential growth in popularity for Alastair Campbell’s blog, than the first skirmish of the Iraq enquiry campaign took place. And Big Al prevailed – this time over the Spectator. It won’t be the last such encounter, as I’ll show.

The Spectator article stated – as fact – that Campbell had, effectively, leant on Lord Butler to water down part of his Iraq report. This would have been a tad difficult, given that he had left Downing Street a whole year before the report was even commissioned. But, even after Big Al registered his displeasure to the magazine’s editor, the Spectator stood its ground. The whole carry on is on the Campbell blog, and shows that the mag finally yielded to the inevitable, making the customary apology and stumping up a donation to Leukaemia Research.

So that’s that, then? Well, no it isn’t. Consider this: such is the picture painted by some in the print media – not for nothing does Campbell call the Daily Mail “the Dacre lie machine” – that to many (most?) people, a story alleging that Big Al has been abusing his position seems par for the course. It’s only when you give the matter a little thought that it becomes obvious: for someone in his position to routinely behave in such a way would be career suicide. Such news, given the means we now have for transmitting and disseminating information, would get out and get known – and Campbell would have been the proverbial toast.

But all too often, a little thought is not given by the print media, and not expected of its readers. Standpoint has just demonstrated this superbly: it has published a critique of US Foreign Policy by John Bolton. For anyone to take “Wiggy” Bolton seriously – his fetching up in the UK press suggests that those Stateside may have ceased doing this – they first have to put away any idea of analysing the argument too closely.

You might see the join, as Eric Morecambe nearly said.

Friday 26 June 2009

Too Much Information

And still Expensegate rumbles on. The Maily Telegraph keeps up its increasingly barrel scraping campaign, Young Dave prevails upon more of his MPs to repay money, Pa Broon seemingly doing likewise. Where will it end?

Well, if last night’s pronouncements by Young Dave are anything to go by, it may not. The apparent determination of the Tories to make lots more information available to the public – in raw form, which those of us who do a neat CSV to Excel import move like – will give the number crunching fraternity hours of harmless fun, but could become Cameron’s albatross.

For a start, we can now compare who’s given back how much. 250k for Young Dave’s chaps, but a whole 360k for Pa Broon. So Broon is better? Well, not really, as Labour have around 350 MPs and the Tories less than 200. But even this is not conclusive, as the Labour Party are still “considering” the cases of yet more of their MPs. We can’t make any definite conclusion from these figures, as the nature of underlying claims may be different, and the figures aren’t final. But what we can conclude is that, given lots more opportunities to produce headline numbers, there will be more of those numbers, quoted as selectively as those publishing them deem necessary.

This, in plain English, means that the Fourth Estate are on to a winner: little expenditure, maximum political embarrassment, and more sales. Unless Young Dave and his chaps get into power and have a sudden attack of National Security Information Override.

Meanwhile, the most astute commentary, as so often, comes from good old Private Eye. On Page 22 of the latest issue (1239) is a bogus Maily Telegraph masthead and the headline “Tory MP Claimed 99p For Roll of 10 Bin Liners And Only Used 8”.


Wacko No More

Just after starting the laptop this morning.

The answer to the inevitable question: where was I when I knew Jacko was dead? Things have changed over the past 45 years: I was too young to understand the word “assassinated” when the news of JFK’s shooting interrupted the early evening TV at my parents’ then home in West Yorkshire.

There are tragedies in showbiz: shouldn’t we get over it and carry on? Well, yes, but Michael Jackson should be remembered, if only for the prodigious amounts of sales he generated: albums, concert tickets, videos, and other merchandise in previously unheard numbers. Thriller pushed on through the fifty million mark – heck, that’s serious selling. Yet he managed to spend at a rate that left him flirting with bankruptcy at the end.

The sad fact is that Jackson packed a lot more pain than pleasure into his fifty years. His childhood – Gary, Indiana is a tough city in which to be born – was less than happy, and becoming a superstar meant that much of what we take for granted was denied him: going to the movies, out for a few drinks with friends, browsing round the shops and markets, taking a weekend break in Paris or Rome, a walk along the beach and a swim in the Med were all off limits. Being normal was not available.

So the world of Michael Jackson developed away from the company and attention of ordinary folks. He then appeared eccentric to many journalists – hence the tag of Wacko Jacko. And his almost child-like admission that he shared his bed with young children was, unsurprisingly, jaw dropping. That the accusations of child molestation did not come earlier than they did – that was the only surprise.

Will anything from his life endure? Yes, of course it will. Jackson didn’t move tens of millions of albums without there being some quality there. Today, someone somewhere will listen to a Michael Jackson CD for the first time, and be as entranced as all those fans who went before.

The defence rests.

Thursday 25 June 2009

The Planning Dooda

Minefield alert – this post is about to discuss modern architecture. I looked a while ago at the controversy over plans to redevelop the site of the former Chelsea Barracks in London, and the interest taken in it by Prince Charles. This had stirred up much of the architectural establishment: they were then brought to boiling point when the planning application was withdrawn a week ago. The Guardian has the details here.

M’Lord Rogers, he of Wobbly Bridge fame, and whose architectural practice had produced the now abandoned design, is not a happy bunny. But then he and Charles have previous. Also, the Rogers design did not enjoy universal support: residents had opposed it, as had Kit Malthouse, Bozza’s deputy at City Hall.

It would perhaps have been better for the planning application to have been considered and either accepted or rejected in the same way as thousands of others. That may have proved more acceptable to Rogers and all those other architects who have taken such exception to Charles’ pronouncements. But the site is owned by the Qatari royal family, and they made the decision not to take the proposal further.

Meanwhile, the controversy over Charles’ involvement will rage on. But his is not the only voice raised against modern architecture: party politicians routinely use it as a convenient whipping boy, as with proposed new council offices in the city of Chester. Ian Simpson’s futuristic proposal was dubbed the “glass slug” by a local journalist, the name stuck, and the Tories shamelessly exploited public opposition to the new building to get control of the City Council in 2007. The proposal has since been abandoned.

So what will happen to Chelsea Barracks? The Qataris are said to be taking a more considered approach. And in Chester? They’ve had local government reorganisation recently – so forget any new offices for some time yet.

Who Flew Cheaper?

Recently I noted that the carrier advertising its flights with the strapline “fly cheaper” – Ryanair – was not the least cost solution for a trip I was making. So where was I going, and who came out best?

The destination – Prague – was the easy part. Finding a convenient departure airport in the North West, and relatively sane flight times, was less so. I try and confine myself to day flights, with the airport accessible by civilised means – meaning rail connected, or with a nearby railhead. That, for me, means Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.

Given that Prague continues to be a popular city break destination, it may surprise some that neither Ryanair nor EasyJet fly there from Liverpool. EasyJet fly from East Midlands, but that would mean driving, and the flight times are crap. However, Ryanair fly from Birmingham, with sensible flight times. So, as I posted previously, I was about to book with them when put off by having to pay a ten quid supplement merely for booking with a debit card. That pushed the total to 102.41.

Did anyone else fly that route? Yes, and it was my tiny friend with the seat surcharge, BMIBaby. Initially sceptical – though the flight times were good – I went through the booking and was pleasantly surprised to find the total cost was rather less than Ryanair, at 75.46. Like the in-flight mag says, Yeah Baby!

The only extra was the need to find an Internet cafe in Prague to print out my boarding pass for the return flight, but at a cost of 20 Koruna (about 60p), this was not bank breaking. Also, the aircraft provided was a 500 series 737, rather better than the 300 I flew on to Alicante in March.

I’m sure that Ryanair will point out that they do seat sales and other offers, and that it’s possible to get yet cheaper deals with them, but these were the prices quoted for outward travel on 15 June and return on 19 June. Perhaps the debit card supplement is lower for Ryanair’s own card – but to me such a consideration is irrelevant. There is one straightforward message here: shop around.

And yes, BMIBaby were on time both ways, too.

Wednesday 24 June 2009


Today at noon will not only mark the start of the weekly ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), but will be a first test for the new Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow. How might he negotiate the minefield? What can he do to win round his already vocal critics?

There are three straightforward actions he can take in this first, brief, test of his stewardship. First and foremost, he has to be able to impose some discipline on what looks to many outsiders like a barely controlled rabble. That means the initially frequent deployment of the word “Order”, no doubt with one or more exclamation marks in pursuit.

Second, he needs to issue a token ticking off to both Pa Broon and Young Dave, to demonstrate that he is in charge – not them – and that no political stripe is immune to his rule.

Third, he can at least soften the mistrust and enmity coming his way from the Tory benches by selecting one of their most vocal number to put a question. So look for him to pick out Nadine Dorries at the first opportunity.

From little acorns, and all that.


Some prejudices never really go away: their continued existence reminds us that the world is still not approaching a state of perfection. It was my experience last September in Berlin that first alerted me.

Close to the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag is the Holocaust Memorial. It is formed of a field of Stelae, dark and silent reminders of the millions that were systematically killed by the Nazis. The monument does not appear controversial: it is a place for reminder and reflection. Or so I thought, before observing the presence of a security guard. In fact, there were two guards on duty that day, and as far as I know, every day.

The example is not an isolated one. Last month in Budapest I noted rather greater security precautions in place at the Great Synagogue (second only in size to that in New York). This magnificent building, topped by two onion domes, is now surrounded by a substantial fence and watched over by more of those guards.

News now reaches me that Jewish communities in Leeds have organised themselves to guard places of worship and other buildings across the city. Here, where there has been a substantial Jewish community for decades, contributing much to the wealth and well being of the area, one might have thought that the older and least pleasant of prejudice would have fallen by the wayside.

Anti-Semitism is one of the most terrible stains on the recent history of much of Europe. It is a challenge to all of us to make sure it is not allowed to return.

No ifs, no buts, no excuses.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Berk Who?

First there was Speakergate. This was a spectacle unacceptable to opposition politicians. Now we have Newspeakergate. This is, guess what, a spectacle unacceptable to opposition politicians – well, to what looks like most of the Tory Party, anyway. But the new Speaker is a Tory MP! Why so glum, Dave and chums?

Ah well. Mr New Speaker is John Bercow. Who he? Member for Buckingham since 1997 – yes, there were such things as new Tory MPs that year – Bercow started his political career on the right of the party. He has, however, moved in the direction of the centre ground since, and in his hardly disguised bid for the Speaker’s chair has become too close to Labour for many on his own side of the House. There has been talk of “disloyalty”, although, in Bercow’s defence, his crime seems no worse than the following of conscience – something that Young Dave’s supposedly inclusive approach might be thought not just to allow, but encourage.

Bercow may also have been influenced in his political journey by his wife’s deeply subversive attachment to the Guardian – she has, moreover, been known to vote Labour – and the autism of one of his children, this latter being held to have moved Bercow to a more compassionate outlook. But here again, David Cameron has had the chastening experience of looking after son Ivan during his child’s painful and tragically short life. Two souls more alike should be hard to find – yet yesterday evening, as Bercow was ceremonially “dragged off” to the Speaker’s chair, Cameron showed no empathy whatever. Most Tories sat on their hands, offering no applause.

Why so? Because many of Young Dave’s chaps believe that Labour members voted en masse for Bercow, because they think that his election will rile Cameron. Anyone doubting this analysis need look no further than the blog of Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who has been less than charitable towards her party colleague. I do try and judge the pronouncements of Ms D on their merits – I liked very much her robust response to the Maily Telegraph, but was more sceptical on her Zimbabwe Moment – but on this matter, she is certainly not airing a fringe opinion.

Indeed, the talk is of a future Tory Government moving to replace Speaker Bercow with someone, shall we say, “more acceptable”. This shows that the Tories do not get it. They accuse Labour and the Lib Dems of being “tribal”, only to behave in a manner yet more “tribal”.

Bercow may be a disaster. But, then again, he may not. Let us find out which he is, before wanting him out.

Gosh Readers, I’ve Lost Another!

While the national political focus has been on Newspeakergate, events have been unfolding in London which do not reflect entirely positively on the mayoral reign of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Because Boris has just lost yet another of his many deputies: yesterday, as noted by Dave Hill in his excellent London Blog, Ian Clement – who has been found misusing his corporate plastic – bowed to the inevitable. Bozza’s reply suggests that he’s jolly angry about it all.

I voiced my concerns a while ago over whether Boris was giving less than 100% commitment to the mayoralty. Since then, there has been the odd positive sign: Johnson’s transport man Kulveer Ranger has persuaded his boss that the previously ditched Cross River Tram was actually A Good Thing, and the two of them are now actively pursuing alternative funding for it. Unfortunately, the harebrained idea of eliminating bendy buses has also been pursued, with the replacement double deckers needing to operate more frequently (because they carry less passengers), and providing longer journey times as they need more time at every stop.

The bus operators aren’t fussed about this: they make their margin whether or not the buses bend in the middle. And they’ve been carrying lots of folks recently, as there has been yet another Tube strike by the RMT (prop. Bob Crowe). Boris and TfL’s Peter Hendy are one tactical brain short when squaring up to Comrade Bob: former mayor Ken Livingstone knew how trades unions worked, and knew the leadership’s mentality, describing the RMT as operating “more a protection racket” than a union. The dispute, unresolved, rumbles on.

Meanwhile, the activities of Ian Clement continue to attract attention, as Dave Hill has observed today. The latest allegation suggests that Clement charged expenses he incurred when working for the Johnson campaign team. The questions, when they inevitably arrive, will ask what Boris knew, and when he knew it. And if he didn’t know it ... you get the picture.

As I said before, Bozza needs to quit farting around and take this job seriously – or let someone else do it. Not a good advert for the modern Tory Party, is it, Dave?

Monday 22 June 2009

Watching Da Ali C Show

Another Iraq war enquiry. Why? What’s the point? We’ve had Hutton and Butler, yet there has been little light shed on what went on in the lead up to the UK’s involvement in yet another war. What can possibly be different this time?

Ah well. By the middle of this week, we’ll know just how open this enquiry will be. And any openness should enable the light to be shone into places where a private enquiry may have decided not to go. This may not meet with universal approval from some of those involved, and here the blogosphere may prove its worth.

Because one of those most intimately involved in the decision of the UK Government to commit to backing Dubya Bush and his hawkish circle of advisors now has a widely read blog: step forward the Burnley fan who does not do God, Alastair Campbell. Big Al has already had his ninepence worth over recent reporting on the subject. And he’s got previous on this one, as anyone remotely near the BBC’s news operation will know (although the Beeb’s singular error was putting its trust in Andrew Gilligan, a Labour hating being from the Planet Vindictive).

So I’ll be looking particularly keenly at Big Al’s blog over the coming weeks, trying to sniff out the clues and read between the lines. In this I will not be alone. Meanwhile, the drive by opposition parties for more openness in the enquiry is certain to continue. And the rationale is as before: Young Dave wants it because it’s another easy slice of shameless opportunism – and, more significantly, his side haven’t dirtied their fingers on it. Corporal Clegg wants to build on being the beneficiary of Charles Kennedy being the only party leader to show some backbone, principle and common sense – declaring his forthright opposition to the war.

And what of Pa Broon? With some Labour MPs also opposed to having an enquiry in private, his room for manoeuvre is not so much limited as non-existent. For him, it all potentially boils down to one question: does he choose to limit the exposure to his predecessor, or his own credibility (and therefore survival)?

That, as they say, is a no brainer.

Sunday 21 June 2009

Persian Mirage

You know that something is making the news when you don’t even need the English commentary. Thus it was that I was made aware of the fallout from the Iranian elections during my R’n’R in Prague: the hotel’s breakfast room had a TV next to the coffee machine, and that meant seeing the day’s headlines several times each morning. It was clear that the result of last weekend’s poll was in dispute.

So what? Well, anything that couples “Middle East” and “potential instability” is not good, and more so when the country concerned is next door to Iraq – and Afghanistan. Add in the Iranian nuclear ambition, the proximity of Israel, and the odd several million barrels of oil, and you’ve got a lethally explosive mix. And there’s little point thinking that the world’s remaining superpower might have any persuasive influence: they have long memories in this part of the world.

The US propped up the brutal dictatorship of the Shah of Iran until the whole rotten edifice was on the point of falling in. So Tehran won’t pay much attention to the Prez. The EU might fare better, but this is first and foremost an internal Iranian affair. It’s for them to sort out.

What would change under a different president? The main challenger in the disputed election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, would “uphold the revolution”, which means no change to the 1979 constitution. Nor would there be any change to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. There may be some measure of reform, and less of the populist rhetoric. But ultimate power would still lie with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Was the poll fair? Merely because many in the West dislike Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his apparent re-election would not be invalidated. That’s the potential of any democratic process – you may not get the desired result. Also, Ahmadinejad was apparently the preferred candidate of the rural communities of Iran, and would have appealed to religiously conservative voters. His anti-Israel rhetoric may also have worked in his favour.

However, one clue was given – perhaps inadvertently – by Ahmadinejad himself, who said that the elections were free and fair. How would he know? He was merely a candidate, and therefore not involved in the election process.

Unless, of course ... you figure it out. Watch this space.

After the Tour

A week is a long time in the blogosphere. But now it’s a case of service resumed.

With a small confession: I’ve been off the wine for several days. This, however, is not down to any measure of abstinence. The sad truth is that my travels took me to Prague, where the tipple of choice is beer. Lots of it. And it’s priced to go: half a litre of supposedly upmarket Pilsener Urquell, served with your meal, comes in at around 33 koruna, which at the current exchange rate is around one pound. Not even your local Wetherspoon can get near that.

Also, there is no excuse for Brits not to sample this pleasant city: finding anyone in a customer facing role who does not speak passable English is very difficult indeed. And the signage on the inexpensive and reliable transport system is translated for you.

Moreover, this is yet another place where they are vastly more enthusiastic about the EU. Posters everywhere point up the current Czech presidency. But then, many will still be able to remember being part of the Warsaw Pact. The EU may not be a thing of perfection, but there is a persuasiveness about supermarkets that have food on the shelves, and a freedom of movement and association both within a country and across 25 others.

And no prospect of war with any of those other 25 countries any time soon.

Sunday 14 June 2009


No, it’s not a reflection of any lack of activity in any part of news or current affairs that I observe, and on which I may comment, but the demands of work, travel and family commitments that have made Zelo Street a little quieter for the last couple of days.

The quiet will continue for a little longer, as I’m on my travels once more, but normal service should be resumed by the end of the week.

Coming up on my return will be more from Europe, the continuing saga of Crewe and its yet to be refurbished station, more from the USA and, sad to say, the revelation that religious intolerance is alive, well, and here in the UK.

That, all being well, will be on its way from June 20.

Thursday 11 June 2009

Wind of No Change

The Italian Prime Minister, and Clown Prince of the EU, Silvio Berlusconi, has today discovered a leader who can outdo him in sheer ridiculousness. Yes, today he has greeted Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, who has fetched up at Roma Ciampino with his all-female bodyguard (forty of them) at the start of a state visit. The Guardian has featured a photo in this article which gives the impression that Gaddafi’s legendary flatulence is the real deal.

Berlusconi’s guest seems to confirm what John Prescott’s recent past has already suggested: that you can fart and still pull. It’s an inspiration to all those of us who fail to be anally retentive in the aftermath of consuming anything containing a modicum of roughage.

But seriously, what is Gaddafi doing in Italy? Well, as the Guardian article points out, the Italians have stumped up a cool five billion dollars as a way of making amends for the occupation of the 1930s. But, as ever, there is a quid pro quo. Libya will act on the migrants arriving in Italy from its shores. This has raised eyebrows, as some see it as giving “Duce” Berlusconi the means of dumping illegal immigrants in Libya, leaving the good Colonel and his less than benign regime to deal with them as they see fit.

However, nobody looks to be shouting too loudly against the measure. Moreover, it would be no surprise to find that governments in Spain, France, Greece and Malta were observing with interest.

Watch this space.

Snooping on the Red Baron

It’s all gone quiet. On the news front, I mean: a quick check of the BBC website reveals no stories in the “top six” about government crises, ministerial resignations, or other horrors for Pa Broon. So what is calming the waters, so soon after two bouts of less than ideal election results for Labour?

Anyone needing to know that one was probably not watching last Sunday’s Andy Marr Show. For here, in an extended interview, was the new mainstay of the Brown camp. The Darth Vader-like presence, of course, belongs to Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole, returned from Euroland and stepping, duly refreshed and reinvented, into his third incarnation at Westminster.

And a very assured performance it was, barring the unfortunate slip at the very end when he said unintentionally that the Cabinet was united against Pa Broon. So will he make any difference? Can he?

Well, nothing should surprise anyone about modern politics, and certainly not when it comes to Mandelson. But Labour have a mountain to climb, whoever they bring on board. Even so, consider this: in the local elections recently, Labour polled badly, getting around 22% of the vote, but the Tories, although getting their hands on several councils, managed just 38%. If Labour were to put on enough support to get them back through the 30% mark, that would signal hung parliament territory at a General Election, provided the Lib Dems hold on to their sixty plus seats.

And, as Sir Tel might have put it, every little helps.

Man Not In A Suitcase

I posted some thoughts a while ago on the rumour that Cristiano Ronaldo would be on his way to Real Madrid come the end of the season. Well, now he really is on his way, and the numbers are suitably eye-watering: the fee, reported by the BBC, is a cool eighty million quid. We’ve come a long way since Trevor Francis became the first player to cost an English club a whole million.

So, what does eighty million look like? You’d be hard pressed to find a suitcase big enough to take the paper money equivalent, whether in Sterling or converted into Euros (the latter currency might be an easier fit, as there is a 500 Euro note). And what has it bought? There lies the reason for the move: as I considered earlier, Ronaldo has recently developed an ego of the size that does not keep well with a manager like Alex Ferguson. How the management at Real Madrid will deal with that is their problem now.

Who will replace Ronaldo? I doubt that Ferguson and his staff are in a rush to splash their cash. They have profited over time to the tune of over 65 million on the player – not a bad return on their initial investment – and there is no need to have a replacement in place for a couple of months yet. But the fact that they will make a move in the transfer market impacts across the Premiership.

Outside the “big four” teams, the kind of fees routinely paid out for top players are the stuff of fantasy. Over at Goodison Park, David Moyes would think himself more than lucky if he had a tenth of Ronaldo’s fee to bring in new players, especially if he didn’t have to sell first. Yet Everton, and other similarly placed teams like Aston Villa, are expected to compete with Manchester United, and The Chelski, on equal terms. Thus there is developing a league within a league.

Even within the “top four” there are arguably two tiers: at the top are Man U and The Chelski, who for different reasons are very rich. They are followed by Liverpool and Arsenal, who are merely moderately rich. Some of the rest may become rich, and the remainder, like Everton, do their best, which can be very good indeed, considering the limited funds available to them.

Will it ever change? Not right now, but as in any sport, nothing is forever.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Good Moaning

It may have vanished from TV screens long ago, but the spirit of ‘Allo ‘Allo returned yesterday to Westminster. The latest publicity wheeze of the British National Party (BNP) ended in straightforward farce as a makeshift convocation of activists sent Oberscheissenführer Nick Griffin and his fellow Stürmers packing in a hail of eggs. And the farce is set to continue today, as the deeply unsavoury Griffin, protected by his trusty Waffle SS Abteilung, attempts to make a speech in Manchester.

In a scenario that appears to inhabit the world somewhere between the Harry Palmer of The Ipcress File and the pursuit of the picture of the fallen Madonna in ‘Allo ‘Allo, Griffin is set to tour the city, presumably in search of a good location for him to stand defiantly and deliver his dubiously crafted speech. Meanwhile, his pursuers will be touring the city in search of him, armed no doubt with whatever they find out the back of local supermarkets. The inedible in full pursuit of the unpalatable.

Observing this unusual variation on job creation schemes, though, the thought may enter that Griffin’s pursuers are no less guilty of suppressing free speech than those BNP followers indulging in hate mail and other routine acts of bullying. It’s a valid point, but I’d advise caution: let’s put the episode into context.

Extremist organisations like the BNP, merely by their presence, evoke an equally extreme response: it was as true of Oswald Mosley in the 1930s as it was of the National Front (NF) in the 1970s, the latter often confronted by groups like the Anti Nazi League (ANL). Moreover, the BNP gets publicity every time the eggs and other overripe produce starts to fly, so however perversely, it does no harm to their public profile.

Also, the idea that Griffin and his fellow Stürmers are striking a blow for free speech by fetching up opposite Parliament is pure tosh: no leader of a major party would do such a thing – brief photo opportunity perhaps, but speech - pointless. Pa Broon, as serving Prime Minister, wouldn’t be allowed to, even if he was so minded. Young Dave and Corporal Clegg could get away with it, but what would be the point? You want to make a statement, you go where there is no chance of interruption, where the message can be got across, and where you’re most likely to reach the target audience.

That means using the news media, whether broadcast, print – or by email or podcast. Nobody is stopping the BNP there: if they have something to say, there will be a media outlet ready to listen and transmit. Voltaire would not have felt the need to intervene on their behalf. The BNP, as I considered earlier, consistently but falsely paint themselves as victims, but the conclusion is clear.

It’s a publicity stunt.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

The Morning After

Today is very much like yesterday: the world is still in more or less the same order, the laws of physics still apply, and Pa Broon is still resident in 10 Downing Street – despite all the speculation following local and European election results.

I said previously that things might be different if the Euro-elections delivered a real stinker for Labour. Well, they did, but clearly the stinker wasn’t big enough for a change of leadership. After all, there was speculation that the party could trail in fourth – but it didn’t. Yes, third was bad, but Labour kept in front of the Lib Dems, and at a future General Election, with a proper campaign, UKIP would not be able to stay with the major parties. Heck, the best they could do in Crewe and Nantwich last year was the occasional hire of a Routemaster bus, and a car with a megaphone on the roof. And they polled less than a thousand votes.

And thus the problem with the Euro-elections: where was the campaign? Apart from the usual “Election Communication” from the main parties, there was no visibility at all anywhere in the area – except, as I observed, UKIP posters. These mined the usual dog whistle subjects: claims of the cost of the EU, and the inference that the country is the subject of “unlimited immigration”. For an entity over which they expend an awful lot of hot air, mainstream politicians devote very little campaigning resource to the EU.

And that brings us back to the Tories. They too did little campaigning for the Euro-elections, but polled well – although short of 30% of the vote. What they intend to do with our EU membership, as discussed previously, is not clear. What they would do if victorious in the next General Election is similarly vague. And here is an opportunity that a supposedly united Labour Party should be seizing.

Tomorrow at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), David Cameron will stand up and denounce Pa Broon, telling everyone that he’s jolly angry (again) and that we should have an immediate General Election (again) so that he and his fellow jolly good chaps can run the country (again). On policy, as ever, there will be no word, and with good reason: the Tories don’t have any worth mentioning, at least not that they’re about to tell us just yet. If Labour really do have some fight left in them, then they might just put up a robust defence of their record, expose Brand Cameron for the empty sham it is, and challenge Young Dave to tell the electorate where the beef is.

That might happen. But then again, it might not.

You Only Leave Once

One interviewer caught an exceptional comment from David Cameron last week: an unequivocal answer to a straight question, and on an issue that is as potentially destructive to the Tories now as it was under “Shagger” Major. Young Dave was asked if there were any circumstances under which he would consider pulling the UK out of the EU. His answer was that, no, there were none that he could envisage. That may surprise and disappoint some. Not me.

This reveals the true nature of the Tory approach to the EU. It also explains the attempt by Cameron and his pal William ‘Ague to put together a new right-wing grouping within the European Parliament. This grouping, so Master ‘Ague would have us believe, is to be Eurosceptic in nature. The sad fact of the matter is that the Tories would ally themselves with a dubious convocation of oddballs, as I’ve already observed. But here they would have no problems railing against all those jolly ghastly foreigners that Dave’s been warning us about.

For this is the real reason for the “realignment”: to use the EU as a whipping boy, something on which to heap the blame and divert attention from those times, which will come as certainly as night follows day, when the probing of the Cameron character – and that of his jolly good chaps – comes under increasing scrutiny. It will be the fault of “Europe” or “Brussels” that poor Dave can’t jolly well do as he’d love to. Those rotten Eurocrats will be held to stand in the way of reform, trade, jobs and anything else that Dave and his pals can dream up in the meantime.

There is, of course, a finite amount of blame dumping that can be done before Joe and Joanne Public start to ask the obvious question: if the EU is so bad for us, what are we doing there? Given the rabidly anti-EU stance of so much of the press, the pressure to come out could escalate very rapidly. And it would be down to Young Dave and his jolly good chaps, and their blame gaming. But there’s the problem.

Coming out of the EU could only be done once. Having done the deed, the idea that we might get welcomed back does not stand serious analysis: the UK Government would have sprayed its goodwill up the wall long before any act of withdrawal, and memories would be long enough to ensure that relations would remain in the deep freeze for many years after.

Also, if the EU were no longer an influence, it could no longer be blamed for the country’s misfortunes. Which brings us back to the idea that Young Dave has to talk tough to those rotten foreigners while keeping us in the EU. Effectively, he has to behave one way at home and another once he gets to Brussels.

Alternatively, he could quit farting around, stop this charade, and tell Andy Coulson to come up with a better idea.

Monday 8 June 2009

Two Blokes on the Number 88

After the settling of yet more dust, this time from the Euro-elections, comes the analysis: who did well, badly, indifferently. This will no doubt produce hours of harmless fun in the vicinity of the water cooler. But in two regions of the country, one party has done very well, and the country very badly. Because the party gaining a foothold in the European Parliament is the British National Party (BNP), the glossy campaign failing to mask the unreconstructed fascist nature of the beast.

The BNP’s leader, Oberscheissenführer Nick Griffin, has been elected in the North West region, and one of his Stürmers has gained a seat in Yorkshire and Humber. The singularly unsavoury Griffin has already said that he will not represent any constituent who is not white, which is a first: even in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles, Ian Paisley made his surgeries available to all in his constituency – whatever their church. He was as diligent a servant of Catholic visitors as he was of Protestants: this was the right and Christian thing to do.

Christian values, or any other moral code, does not constrain the BNP: nowhere was this better illustrated than in the aftermath of an interview given by Unterscheissenführer Simon Darby last week. One of those quizzing the BNP’s deputy leader was Iain Dale (and there is no blogger greater than he) who has subsequently been the recipient of hate mail. His co-host has also been targeted. Their transgression appears to have been to gift this particular Gauleiter a generous length of rope, then watch as the recipient strung himself up.

Meanwhile, the BNP is painting itself as misrepresented and unfairly stigmatised, which might seem a bit rich until one realises their direction of travel: the Nazis painted themselves as the victims of a supposed Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy, even while they were systematically murdering hundreds of thousands of Jews, and engaging in a brutal war against both civilian and military in the Soviet Union.

Also, as noted this morning by the Guardian’s Michael White, the BNP, while trading on the disaffection of white working class voters, has two MEPs who were privately educated, rather like Oswald Mosley before them. One thing that the Guardian, and all other parts of the news media now need to do, is to continue their probing of the BNP, whatever the threat level, so that its true nature can be revealed.

Let’s keep shining that light on the journey of the Number 88.

Sunday 7 June 2009

The Democratic Deficit – 2

Yes, there’s more: in this post I’ll consider the other charge levelled against Pa Broon and his clan, especially in the wake of Friday’s reshuffle, that of an increasing number of cabinet ministers being unelected. Also, I’ll sound a caution against looking too fondly across the pond.

The return of Peter Mandelson to the Cabinet has started off the basic assertion that, as he has not submitted himself to the electorate, he is “unelected”. Well, yes and no. Yes, any appointee to the House of Lords is not elected as an MP has to be. But no, in the UK we do not elect Cabinet Ministers, just as we don’t elect a Prime Minister. It would be a “bridge too far” to have a PM who did not sit in the House of Commons, although that outcome came close in 1940, when it was a toss-up between Churchill and Lord Halifax. But having members of the Cabinet sitting in the Lords is not exceptional.

The Tories had Lords Hailsham and Carrington, the latter holding one of the three great offices of state, as Foreign Secretary. There was no urging against his appointment merely because he sat in the Lords; he left the post as a matter of honour, taking his share of the responsibility for the Argentines getting their hands, however briefly, on the Falkland Islands. Why Mandelson should be considered differently is probably down to his “Prince of Darkness” reputation, and the possibility that the duties could not be performed any better by one or other back-benchers.

Yes, Mandelson is not alone in the current cabinet in being an appointee. However, there is no specific limit on the number of these, although it has become customary to have most Cabinet posts filled by MPs. Like so much in the governance of the UK, it’s a grey area, implicitly working from precedent. So perhaps it’s all different in the USA, where there is a written constitution?

Ah well. The President elect can nominate whom he likes for high office, without the appointee being submitted to the democratic process. One of the most controversial Secretaries of State, John Foster Dulles, served by appointment, and on the occasion that he stood for elected office, was defeated. Dubya Bush appointed Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz – two of the so called “hawks” – personally, and they had considerable – maybe too much - authority. Barack Obama appoints his own people: Hillary Clinton may have held elected office, but the Secretary of State does not have to be from either House, even nowadays.

So yes, there are those who serve on either side of the Atlantic, without being chosen by any electorate other than the President or Prime Minister, together with their advisors. The onus is on those in the UK who would urge otherwise to make their case.

And that means doing more than complaining.

The Democratic Deficit - 1

Here’s a straight question, one much asked in the current political climate: is Pa Broon an unelected Prime Minister? Here’s an equally straight answer: no he isn’t. I will explain.

Unlike the USA, where the President is directly elected, the UK does not elect a Prime Minister. At a General Election, we elect MPs on a constituency basis: these overwhelmingly stand on the platform of one or other of the major parties. Following that election, it is customary for the leader of the victorious party to become Prime Minister. Therefore, at the previous General Election, Tony Blair, as leader of the Labour Party, went to see the Queen. He became Prime Minister.

The first majority Labour Government almost bucked this trend: there were moves to replace Clem Attlee after the 1945 landslide, but they were too late. By the time the plotters had made their decision, Attlee was motoring over to see the King, and he then formed the subsequent Government as Prime Minister.

But what about changing PM during the course of a Parliament? Once again, there is nothing that dictates the need for a General Election – after all, that election does not elect the PM. A look at the UK in the 1930s illustrates this. The National Government of 1931 was headed by Ramsay MacDonald, but he was increasingly a figurehead, and the real power was with Stanley Baldwin. After the following election, in 1935, Baldwin did indeed take over as PM, but retired in 1937, the vacancy being filled by Neville Chamberlain. No General Election was needed, nor was there any clamour for one.

When Chamberlain stepped down in 1940 in favour of Churchill, that was the third PM of the 1935 Parliament, although the wartime emergency had to be considered. There have been cases since: Eden gave way to Macmillan in 1957 and the latter did not go to the country for another two years, Macmillan himself went in 1963 and his successor, Alec Douglas Home, waited until the last minute before submitting himself to the voters. John Major also waited until the last minute in 1992. None of these Prime Ministers was less than legitimate.

What makes Gordon Brown any different? The answer is that nothing makes his case significantly different to those who have gone before. We don’t elect our PM through the ballot box; therefore any suggestion that he is “unelected” is pure drivel.

If Brown were to stand down, would his successor have to call a General Election? The straightforward answer is no, they wouldn’t. They may, however, wish to do so, but would be under no compulsion. As ever, the calling of such an election before the end of the five year maximum would be in the PM’s gift.

There does, however, have to be a General Election by next May.

Saturday 6 June 2009

Going, Going ... Not Gone?

To once again use the word “febrile” to describe the political mood yesterday would be verging on understatement. There were resignations, rumours, allegations and a clearly fraught Prime Ministerial press conference. But after the fog of yet another battle cleared, Pa Broon was still there, though Labour had a grim day of local election results. So many keep on that he’s going, but he doesn’t go. Will the next few days be any different?

The resignation of Photo Edit Man James Purnell, which I considered yesterday, was going to be the “tipping point”: from that moment, other ministers would troop into the Brown study, rather in the manner of the final days of Margaret Thatcher, to tell him the game was up. It didn’t happen. More, the Cabinet has given the impression that its members are not for changing leader. Well, not just yet.

Because the local elections weren’t the only ones being held. The European poll was on the same day; the count will not be until tomorrow, putting us in line with the rest of the EU. What will be revealed when the votes are totted up is now the subject of yet more speculation. It is likely to be bad for Labour, and this may set off another attempt to force a change of leader, as the Guardian has considered.

For any challenge to have a chance of success, there would need to be more than seventy MPs willing to subscribe to it. If the Euro-poll is as bad as feared, that number may be comfortably exceeded. But what would happen next? Well, if Brown was then persuaded to step down, there would have to be either a successor ready to take over, or a number of potential replacements would then face off in a leadership election.

The winner would then become leader of the party and Prime Minister. So far, so straightforward. But then would come the cry from Young Dave and Corporal Clegg for a General Election – and rather louder than of late. They will argue that the new leader must submit him or herself to the electorate. What grounds they have for such claims I’ll consider soon. In the meantime, the question is still whether Brown will be on his way come next week.

Let’s wait and see what the Euro-poll throws up. A real stinker for Labour will increase the momentum towards a change of leader. By late on Monday, if the results are so bad, we will know the answer.

Out Like Flint

Another day, another resignation: actually there was more than one yesterday, but that grabbing the headlines was by Caroline Flint, who would otherwise have been demoted. By her own analysis, she was on the periphery of the cabinet, and had not been attending it regularly. But this only served to fuel the fire in her resignation letter.

Ms Flint had been Europe minister: she was also ambitious. As Pa Broon went through his ultimately limited reshuffle options, she found herself going backwards, and suddenly someone who had started the day voicing her full support for the party leadership had changed tack, accusing Brown of using her as “window dressing”. However, this approach has a problem: Ms Flint has previously presented herself in a way that looks rather like window dressing, and this morning’s Guardian has reprinted a photo from its sister paper, the Observer, which shows the now former minister in a reclining pose.

The photo has also been seized upon by the Daily Mail, a paper that is never backward in putting forward the glamour angle – all in the best possible taste, of course. The Mail has also observed that, last year, Ms Flint “ ... pulled off the impressive feat of stealing the Budget Day headlines from the Chancellor by strolling up Downing Street in a skirt split to the thigh”.

In fairness to Ms Flint, this is a problem for women in politics: if they don’t push forward their feminine side, many in the press sneer and call them “plain” or “frumpy”, and if they do, then, well, see the comments from the Mail. But if Brown was only minded to use women MPs as window dressing, he wouldn’t have even considered giving the Home Office to Jacqui Smith.

No, after all the posed photos and the tetchy letter have been pored over, there is a straightforward conclusion to be drawn: she wanted and expected something that she didn’t get, and threw a strop. That the strop throwing took place amidst all the other problems for Pa Broon made it a little more newsworthy.

Friday 5 June 2009

The Man in the Picture

Just when Pa Broon thought he’d seen the last of the dissenters with the return to Salford of Hazel Blears, up popped another ministerial resignation, this time accompanied by an invite to step down. The intervention – which was widely rumoured all yesterday – was that of Blairite James Purnell, the recent originator of a new comedy genre.

Purnell, it has been told, privately considered his position yesterday, so privately that the impending ministerial walkout was all round the Westminster village several hours before it happened. The only good thing for Pa Broon was that he delayed his declaration until the polls closed.

So who is James Purnell, and what is his unique contribution to comedy? Well, he’s a paid up member of the New Labour Project, however that defines itself today, and until last night had been Work and Pensions Secretary. In this office he had been “thinking the unthinkable”, which manifested itself in the form of a perceived authoritarian attitude towards benefit claimants. This kind of thing plays well with the readers of the Daily Mail, whose legendarily foul mouthed editor Paul Dacre is clearly unhappy contributing any of his 1.5 million annual remuneration package in taxes, just to keep the Great Unwashed out of the workhouse.

Purnell’s invaluable comedy moment came when he was delayed en route to a photo opportunity: to rectify this problem with the space-time continuum, his image was edited in later. Following the discovery of his truth economy moment, the Purnell face has appeared in the crowd behind Neville Chamberlain and his piece of paper, in Red Square with Lenin, and most importantly at the first moon landing. Thus he has become established as a legend in his own lunchtime.

But there was one deadly serious message in the Purnell resignation letter: his urging of Pa Broon’s departure was because young Mr P is still looking towards Labour winning the next General Election. That should sound a warning to David Cameron: this means that his opponents still possess some fight. Young Dave has, in the past 24 hours, been routinely telling anyone who will listen that he’s jolly angry (again), and that he jolly well wants a General Election (again). Unfortunately the play acting doesn’t move his opponents, and the calling of a General Election is not in his gift.

Moreover, as Cameron has just reopened several candidate selections, a process which could take until the end of the year to complete, the Tories wouldn’t be ready until next year anyway.

Unless, of course, the new openness on candidate selection is just for show.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

Amidst all the febrile swirl of UK politics, another anniversary passed this week: twenty years since the Chinese Government brutally ended the student-led protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. At first the regime appeared incapable of summoning soldiers willing to do the deed; the bloody aftermath showed that those eventually commanded to end the occupation had no problem with their orders, nor even any consideration for human life.

There have been no commemorations in Beijing: the official line is that it didn’t happen. The nearest place to mark the deed has been Hong Kong. The Chinese live under a totalitarian Government; the idea of democracy does not enter. Yet this behaviour is tolerated by the West, if only implicitly: we trade with China, their thrift buys part of our debt. Thus the impossibility of so-called “ethical foreign policy”.

China won’t change its behaviour any time soon, let alone its political system. And we in the West won’t be in a hurry to force the issue.

Thursday 4 June 2009

Nobody Fancy a Chipmunk?

Now resigned from Pa Broon’s cabinet, Hazel Blears has admitted to being a “Marmite politician”: folks either love or hate her. Quite a few in and around the Westminster village, across the political spectrum, quite like her, and have therefore been relatively kind about her this week. Things are a little different Oop North.

Ms Blears (aka The Chipmunk) likes to trowel on her humble roots: she passed the exam and climbed the greasy pole, but her brother did not, so he went to drive a bus. She’s supposed, though, to still have the common touch, and to be a good issues and grass roots campaigner, so yesterday afternoon the folks from BBC North West Tonight went out and about in Hazel’s back yard, the city of Salford, to see how Joe and Joanne Public felt about their MP.

And Mr and Ms Public were seen to be at odds with the Westminster village. Many were quizzed on camera, and almost all were hostile. Eventually one woman was found who was prepared to speak up for the Chipmunk.

The survey was, of course, done at random, and things might be different come a future General Election. But from the comments of folks in Salford, where they tend to tell you what they’re thinking very directly, it will be uphill all the way for the diminutive former minister.

Flight to Know

Flying is, usually, an uneventful way to travel. It can also be both boring and frustrating, with delays and more and more “security” now part of the scenery. Very occasionally there is an accident. Some are survivable, some not: anything that occurs at cruising altitude tends to the latter. In each case, the work of accident investigators teases out the causes, providing the reassurance that the industry learns from the event, making recurrence less likely.

This week there has been another accident: Air France flight 447, bound from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, failed to make an expected radio contact with Senegalese air traffic control, and today’s report on the BBC website details the finding of debris and a large fuel slick on the Atlantic Ocean. The weather in the area at the time was poor, and the radar shows some hefty thunderstorms. The search for the aircraft’s flight recorders continues.

There have been transatlantic flights ending in apparent mystery in the recent past, but the reality has always come through following rigorous investigation. TWA 800, a Boeing 747 also en route for Paris, was the subject of all manner of conspiracy theories, including a spurious punt at Greek airport security (the aircraft had previously flown into North America from Athens) before the crash was traced to the explosive mixture of elderly wiring and fuel vapour in an otherwise empty centre tank.

The initial mystery of Swissair 111, an MD-11 that crashed soon after leaving New York’s JFK, was revealed to be a fire that had started in the plane’s unique on board entertainment system. And EgyptAir 990, a Boeing 767 bound for Cairo, turned out to have been downed by what appeared to be a deliberate act by a relief pilot, a conclusion which did not endear the US investigators to many Egyptians. The findings were sometimes grim. But having the causes discovered, and knowing that steps would be taken to prevent further losses, gave comfort to those who trust their lives to airlines on a more or less regular basis.

Thus the problem with AF447: the flight’s data recorders have not been found, and the possibility has been raised that they may never be, given the depth of the ocean in the area where the plane was lost. But we need to know. The aircraft concerned, an Airbus 330, is in service all over the world – many charter carriers out of the UK use them to ferry holidaymakers.

So those recorders must be found. Unless anyone can solve the mystery of AF447 any other way.

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Life Goes On

The atmosphere around the Westminster village and within political circles generally is bordering on the febrile. Speculation is rife: who will resign next? Who will be reshuffled? Why is Pa Broon going, not going, under pressure, looking more or less relaxed, or not? As ever, where questions are not, or cannot, be answered directly, rumour swiftly takes hold.

Meanwhile, in the real world, life goes on. And here I have a confession to make: while Prime Ministers’ Questions (PMQs) was under way, I was out shopping. More specifically, I was at Aldi, making sure that there were sufficient ciabattas for weekends and days out, diet cloudy lemonade for the next warm one, and to liberate the last jars of salmon paste (which is much cheaper than the same brand at Asda).

This might sound dead boring, but it’s what goes on, and will continue to go on, whatever happens within the politics bubble. It will be little affected by changes in the Cabinet, or even at 10 Downing Street. A significant change in tack following a General Election may impact upon it, but that isn’t happening now, tomorrow, or even next week: even if Pa Broon were to be wheeled out of Downing Street, there would not have to be one until next year.

And now I have to get the washing in.

Heads Up – Election Imminent

Yes folks, in case there is anyone out there that doesn’t know, tomorrow is Election day. For all of us, there are elections to the European Parliament; for a lesser potential electorate, there are Local Government ones.

It seems that the BBC, in its wisdom, will not be in wall-to-wall coverage mode on either of the polls, but aficionados and anoraks need not feel left out: playradiouk.com has live coverage on both Friday and Sunday. The programmes are being co-hosted by Iain Dale (and there is no blogger greater than he) and Hopi Sen. Simply click on the graphic below for more.

Why Sunday? Well, although we in the UK always do polling on Thursday – because we do, so there – the rest of the EU does Euro-elections on Sunday. So the UK doesn’t start its count until other countries have closed their polls.

Paradoxically, given all the by-election coverage last year, Crewe and Nantwich will not figure on the Local Government Election radar this time, as a result of the recent reorganisation of Cheshire County Council and the six Cheshire districts into two unitary authorities.

But I’m sure there will be plenty to pick over elsewhere.

The Republican Wrong – Again

Since the election of Barack Obama as President of the USA, the Republican Party, now in opposition, has apparently not been providing coherent opposition to the ruling Democrats. I’ve covered the thus far fruitless attempts to question Obama’s legitimacy; now comes a sign that the GOP is out of ideas, and out of credibility.

The Prez has nominated Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Ms Sotomayor once said that folks like herself, with her background and experience, might bring a better understanding to race and gender issues than white males. Maybe so; it might make an interesting subject for a school debating society to chew over. But that isn’t how the Republican right see it. They have called Sotomayor racist. The Guardian has the story here.

So now we have former House speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Bush mover and shaker Karl Rove, denouncing Obama’s pick, egged on by the deeply unpleasant Rush Limbaugh, who has said that the GOP should press the issue. My reaction is that all of these flannelled fools need to grow up: once again, they are failing their party – yet another example of less than coherent opposition – and, worse, they are failing the reputation of their country. Those looking on from this side of the pond see the debasing of politics into mean spirited pettiness.

But, as the man said, there’s more. As if the use of the R-word was not bad enough, there is now a further charge against Sotomayor: that she uses a Hispanic pronunciation of her surname. This is held to be A Bad Thing. It is being urged that she should “anglicise” that name, whatever that means in a land where the form of English spoken does not always match that in England.

The “Unamerican” pronunciation argument is, surprise surprise, not being wheeled out against Republican Rudy Giuliani. But enough. This is not the politics of rational intellectuals. It is the politics of the playground.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

What They Do At Crewe

The free paper has landed once more. And, once again, it contains pronouncements from our MP, Edward Timpson (the man with marginally more charisma than a Burton’s dummy). And, as so often, Eddie’s take on the railway is plain flat wrong. Fortunately I’ve been out and about this afternoon with my camera, so I can point out to him, and anyone else, the error of his ways.

Eddie has taken to telling that jobs from Crewe Works are being “exported to Japan”, which as I’ve said many times, is complete crap. What the Works does is, to a significant extent, to do with repair and refurbishment. Which cannot be exported half way round the world. The Works no longer builds trains – the last Tory government’s actions put paid to that – so building trains partly in Japan cannot involve any exporting of Crewe jobs. If anyone exported the jobs, Eddie’s pals from their last campaign covered that one.

Recently, another of Bombardier’s facilities managed to drop some of the coaches from one of Open Access operator Hull Trains’ Pioneer sets from their jacks. It was a severe enough drop to put the future of the stock into question. But Crewe Works looked over the damage and pronounced it repairable. And so it was.

This afternoon, the two repaired coaches left the works. Here is the first, and here’s the second. I commend these images to Eddie, and anyone else who is unsure of the specialism of the workforce. Our MP should be out there, telling anyone and everyone to bring their rolling stock repairs to Crewe, where they know how to do these repairs properly.

This is what they do at Crewe.

Mr O’Leary’s Cash Cow

This morning’s business news shows that no player in the airline industry is immune to the march of events: Ryanair has announced a first annual loss, as detailed by the BBC. But head man Michael O’Leary is upbeat: he says that there is an underlying profitability. He is right. The item that pushed the carrier into the red was a write-down of its stake in Aer Lingus: here is proof that even O’Leary cannot resist playing a little “real Monopoly”, and that he would be better off sticking with the knitting.

Because Ryanair is still very good at selling its wares to We The People, even when those wares are not the least expensive on offer. I know this, as later this month I am aiming to be on my travels once more, to the land Dubya Bush knows as Yurp. And, for once, I can make a direct comparison between two of the so-called budget airlines. One of these is Ryanair. And it is not the lowest cost option.

It was to Mr O’Leary’s supposed bargain basement that I first turned, and had reached the last stage in costing the flight when I opted to pay by debit card. Only when the handling charge flashed up – a whopping ten quid – did the Yorkshire dissent kick in. A quick scan of the alternatives revealed a carrier willing to offer a flight between the same points for more than 25 pounds less. Moreover, the “taxes and charges” varied between carriers: Ryanair quoted over 56 notes, while the alternative was just under 38, with a debit card surcharge of only 5.50.

On top of that, Ryanair slapped another five quid each way on top for “online check-in”, while the competition made no such charge. In mitigation, it’s possible that the alternative choice is loss leading, and no doubt the combative O’Leary will be quick to point out that his firm does lots of promotions which offer cheaper options – if you are quick enough off the mark and are prepared to fly at certain times.

The moral of the story is that, just because Ryanair bang on about “cheap flights”, and tell you that to travel with them is to “fly cheaper”, that doesn’t mean you should take them at their word.

And, as if you needed to know, they’re not in it to be charitable.

Barry’s on a Demonstration

As Barack Obama sets off on his tour of the Middle East, he might be thought to distance himself from the Bush years. Well, yes and no. Because much of the substance of what Dubya would bring to a similar tour is still there – what Obama is doing differently is in the emphases and nuances. It makes fascinating reading. But it will not be to all parties’ tastes.

The BBC’s Justin Webb, who filed an interview with the Prez yesterday evening, has put his name to this item on the Beeb’s website, which covers much the same ground. Obama, for instance, still believes that democracy is a good thing for any country – as would Bush – but he describes it as an “ideal”, or ultimate goal. He is careful not to be seen pushing “Americanisation”, something that Alastair Campbell touched on in his blog recently, but rather is promoting the USA as a “role model” for others.

Moreover, he’s stressing the negotiation angle with Iran: there is no overt sabre rattling. So far, so promising, but what about Israel? Obama has not had an exactly rapturous response from veteran Israeli PM Binyamin Netenyahu to his call to stop settlement building in the West Bank, and he seems to suggest that he may be playing a long game on this. The Arab world is, as ever, watching how this unfolds: for Obama to take a firm and unequivocal line with Israel will go down well there.

The Israelis are, for now, in uncharted territory. They depend on the USA for much of their trade, and for weaponry as well as financial support. No other country can, or will, willingly step in and take over that role. The Republican Right, so ready to support whatever action Israel deems necessary against its neighbours, would be thought to be united in lobbying for its friends in the Middle East. But that same convocation of the Right has become distracted and disoriented by the Obama victory. As I observed recently, much of their energy is being expended on a thus far fruitless campaign to prove that Obama is not a legitimate president.

Also not helping the resistance of the Israelis to Obama’s line on settlement building is the inconvenient fact that most Jewish voters in the USA voted Democrat last time round. Merely because someone is a US citizen and Jewish does not guarantee support for Israel, but the correlation is strong. The implicit suggestion to Netenyahu is as clear to him as it will be unpalatable.

That is, the USA will keep you secure – but do as you’re told.

Monday 1 June 2009

Talent Secondary – Simon’s got Money!

Confession time: the millions tuned in to the final of Britain’s Got Talent did not include me. Nor have I been involved in the downloading of any of the performances, or any YouTube hits. Been there, seen it: after all, this is little more than a modern day re-tread of Opportunity Knocks or New Faces.

Except for one thing, the commercial opportunities now routinely exploited as part of the package. And here we meet the real winner of this show, the loathsome Simon Cowell. This modern day impresario manages to routinely trouser a double figure number of millions per annum merely by his management and other behind the scenes activities. More, his trademark behaviour is to brusquely put down contestants and their abilities, these being the very people whose presence enables him to accumulate his fortune.

Accompanying Cowell on his journey into money is former tabloid editor Piers “Moron” Morgan, whose career took a less than satisfactory turn when the Daily Mirror dispensed with his services following a hoax over supposed photos showing torture in Iraq. Morgan indulged in a long campaign against Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, which was fruitless, and a rather shorter one against Jeremy “Motormouth” Clarkson, which ended with Morgan on the wrong side of Clarkson’s fists. Thus his impeccable qualification for sitting in judgment on others.

Cowell, Morgan and their fellow judge Amanda Holden – who was once married to Les Dennis, making her a very minor sleb – move on from one series of BGT to another, while an ever growing litany of hopefuls have their balloons burst. The contestants may enjoy some success, but theirs is as nothing to the riches on offer to Simon Cowell.

So consider this while sifting through today’s news: while BGT favourite, an ordinary and singular woman called Susan Boyle, is taken off to The Priory in a broken and exhausted state, Cowell, Morgan and the rest take the money and move off towards a pleasantly warm summer sunset.

The amateur singer becomes history, but the professional moneybags keep right on going. As Esther might have said, That’s Life.

Against the Dying of the Light – 3

Five trophies? That was the prospect for Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United team as 2009 began. He had acknowledged his debt to Carlos Queiroz by confirming that some of his former deputy’s methods would continue – now he had to show that the Man U machine would carry on winning without him. And the first two of the five – the World Club Championship and the League Cup – were duly ticked off.

But then push came to shove. In the FA Cup semi final, the match went to extra time, and then penalties. Everton, that day’s opponents, had never won a penalty shoot-out. But there are first times for everything, and David Moyes’ men duly dumped Ferguson’s rather more expensively assembled team out of the competition. Worse, there were two Premiership defeats to Liverpool, the second highlighting a worrying weakness from defender Nemanja Vidic when confronted with a top class opponent – on this occasion, Fernando Torres. And a shocking lapse of team discipline against Fulham.

But Premiership opposition was not consistently organised: Arsenal had a season of transition, Chelsea’s flirtation with Scolari ended disastrously (making four managers in two seasons), and Liverpool’s Rafa Benítez was cautious – too cautious. So Man U ticked off another title, making three on the trot twice. Thus Ferguson had raised the bar once more. And now there was just the Champions’ League.

It was not to be. And the turning point was again the weakness of Vidic, this time against Samuel Eto’o. Barça scored; they played keep-ball; they scored again. The Red Devils were out of it, their tactics poor, their players apparently weary. Thus far, Ferguson had shown that they could do it without Eric, Sparky, Becks, Keano or Ruud, but a defence of the Champions’ League – to equal what Cloughie had done for Forest all those years ago – was beyond his men.

The immediate reaction was that they would be back the following season, making their own record of three Champions’ League finals in a row. But with uncertainty surrounding players like Ronaldo, that may be a big ask. And then there is Ferguson himself. Now 67, he has previously considered retirement, but rejected it: he still wants dearly to win, to better his already massive achievement. And he, of all men, would never, ever submit quietly to the dying of the light. But looking across at Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola, only 38 and with so much more to achieve, one thought might have entered.

This is where he came in.