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Saturday 31 October 2009

When News Is Not News

I looked recently at the clash between the Obama White House and Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) over the coverage that Rupe’s network was giving the Prez. Fox have been countering, via their Senior Veep Michael Clemente, that there is a difference between news programming and opinion programming. So there is.

But when you consider the hours that Clemente gave for “news programming”, which are 9am to 4pm and 6pm to 8pm, and then match them with the channel’s running order, this makes for revealing reading, as Jon Stewart demonstrated on the Daily Show Thursday night (We in the UK got it on More4 at 2030 yesterday. You missed it? Where were you? Comedy Central may have video available).

Stewart showed that, by Fox’ own definition, the shows hosted by Bill O’Reilly, Greta van Susteren, Sean Hannity, and – it’s that man again – Glenn Beck are not news. Those in the UK that recall Dan, Dan the Oratory Man going on Fox to denounce the NHS may be interested to know that he went on with Hannity and Beck. So that, according to Fox, was not news.

Good to get that one cleared up. Thanks Mike.

Chopper Cropper – 6

The Afghan helicopter ruckus had quietened down recently, but expect things to kick off again in short order following the revelation that a senior officer killed recently by yet another Taliban Improvised Explosive Device (IED) had pointed out a shortage before his death.

Officer casualties are relatively rare. This isn’t a selfish thing: if the men in theatre lose their commander, the consequences can be disastrous. L/Col Rupert Thorneloe had been in an armoured vehicle when an IED was detonated close by, and it must have been a large one to penetrate the vehicle sufficiently to kill two of the men travelling in it.

Thorneloe was apparently explicit in his assertion that there were not enough helicopters available to move men around, and that he didn’t have access to any of them. The nature of journalism being what it is, after all the coverage of this issue back in August along with the subsequent arguments, the story dropped off the radar, so it’s not clear how the situation is right now.

The armed forces have been hiring helicopters, some of which are Russian built, but whether they are being used to ferry troops is unclear. There may also be more of our own machines in theatre. But one thing is certain: there will still be another round of arguments – expect this to feature in tomorrow morning’s Andy Marr Show.

Friday 30 October 2009

The Laws Don’t Work – 5

Some time ago, I put together a short series of posts on the way in which the UK approaches the business of currently illegal drugs. The conclusion was, more or less, that we would benefit from a reasoned debate on the subject, but that this will not occur while much of the tabloid media is ready to shout down anyone making such a suggestion, with politicians of every stripe lining up to sound “tough on drugs”.

Also, the involvement of organised criminality in the drug trade was considered: much of the crime committed across the UK is directly attributable to this. Yet successive Governments still cling to the mantra of being “tough on drugs”, and anyone stepping out of line is likely to receive short shrift. Today has seen a superb example of that behaviour in action.

Professor David Nutt – there’s a gift for tomorrow’s tabloids – has been asked to stand down from his position as head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs by Home Secretary Alan Johnson. Any other Home Secretary would have taken the same decision: not to do so would invoke condemnation from the most righteous part of the media, such as Paul Dacre, the legendarily foul mouthed editor of the Daily Mail.

What is Nutt’s crime? To criticise the Government’s decision to reclassify cannabis from Class C back to Class B, and to state that classification of drugs was becoming politicised, which latter is a statement of the blindingly obvious. Here, if proof were needed, is an example of the inability of the establishment to engage in a grown up debate on a subject where grown up debate is sorely needed.

Thus we continue with a failed approach to the issue of drugs. Changing the Government will not improve matters: the Tories are stuck in the same rut as Labour.

Strike? What Strike?

Before leaving the house this morning, I thought that there would be no postal delivery today, as the postal workers are on strike. But there was a delivery, and I’ve seen several posties out and about during the day, which suggests that support may be less than total.

And perhaps this is a sign that, in an occupation that is not massively well paid, there is a need for some of the workforce to keep money coming in. Even in the days when trades unions wielded rather more power than they do today, postal strikes could be broken: during the time that Sailor Heath occupied 10 Downing Street, the power workers won their dispute over pay, and the miners eventually provoked the three day week and Heath’s “Who governs Britain” election, but the postal workers lost in their attempt to gain a better pay deal.

Maybe this memory is spurring on Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole as he watches the progress of the dispute, but doesn’t get involved. Allegedly.

Thursday 29 October 2009

It Was Eighty Years Ago Today

Today is October 29, which, apart from the ever shortening days of autumn, may not suggest anything dramatic, but 80 years ago was Black Tuesday, when the stock market crash of 1929 really took hold.

The market had peaked back in early September of that year, and had been soft in the earlier part of October. The panic set in on October 24, known as Dark Thursday, when there was a sudden rush to sell. This was compounded by the ticker falling behind what was actually happening, so investors were to an extent flying blind. They did know that others were selling, so they too sold. Others could not be contacted by brokers asking them to put up more margin – much of the speculative boom was on the back of borrowed money – so those brokers sold too.

An attempt to steady the market was organised around midday, and Richard Whitney, vice president of the exchange, who was later jailed for embezzlement, went on to the floor of the exchange and bought several million dollars’ worth of stocks. This had a calming effect, but by the following Tuesday, it was rumoured that the stocks bought the previous Thursday were being unloaded. There was again a rush to sell, and again the ticker fell behind the market.

The market fell, with the occasional rally, for around four years, and ultimately by 89% from its peak. The Great Depression followed. Herbert Hoover, who could not, or would not, confront this problem, became a one term President, and Franklin Roosevelt, who had admitted the problem and committed himself to tackling it, was elected in a landslide.

The Hoover Administration, in fact, ran a budget surplus as businesses went to the wall and unemployment rocketed. They did nothing to temper the effects of the crisis. From this came the remedy of Keynes. Perhaps there is a lesson here for anyone advocating balanced budgets and cutting spending in pursuit of that goal.

[For some modern day reflections on 1929, here’s more]

At Last The Bill

As I observed recently, events have been in train in the US Senate to move towards getting a Healthcare Bill ready. And now it is indeed ready: Speaker Nancy Pelosi has today unveiled the Affordable Health Care for America Act, which at last brings the possibility for 36 million previously uninsured citizens (more than half the population of the UK) to have cover.

The Bill also includes a public health insurance option, which will mean potential competition for private insurers, as well as provisions to stop insurers abandoning those who get sick – and limiting the financial demands on citizens (what is often termed “co-payment”) to pay for acute or emergency care.

No-one who is interested in the subject need be averse to this summary of the legislation, and I commend it to anyone who seeks factual analysis, rather than the range of speculation and scaremongering that has already done the rounds.

If this bill succeeds, it will mean that the Presidency of Barack Obama has succeeded where Bill Clinton, and even Franklin Roosevelt, have failed.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

An Unhappy Military Covenanter

Defence spending comes on to the news radar with some regularity nowadays, and more often than not appears in a less than favourable light. But most vehicles built for military use do tend to get used sooner or later. It was not always thus.

Recently, while trawling the local history of Crewe – the exercise is for a photo collection of the town which I have in progress right now – I came across the strange case of the Covenanter tank. This was designed for service in World War 2, and the reason it features in the town’s history is that many of them were built at the Railway Works.

It’s sometimes imagined that, given the UK generally made the most of its scarce resources in the war years, every last item of equipment was pressed into service. Not the Covenanter. Over 1700 built, and almost every one scrapped without seeing service, the consequence of poor and rushed design.

They didn’t even bother with a prototype. Not a good idea.

Kings of the Karzai

It is bizarre, but nothing about the involvement of the US in Afghanistan should surprise anyone: the New York Times revealed in an article yesterday that the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is apparently being bankrolled by the CIA. Ahmed Wali Karzai is also suspected of being heavily involved in the opium trade.

Part of the money being channelled seems to be paying for the maintenance of a paramilitary force, which doesn’t augur well for any notion of building a coherent state from which the USA can ultimately withdraw, with the confidence that it will hold together.

Also in the less than desirable category is the funding of someone involved in the drug trade, when the US is supposedly moving to cut back what is a lucrative revenue stream for the Taliban.

It’s sad, it’s baffling, but as previously noted, not surprising: the US has been greasing palms in the area since the time when the Russians marched in around thirty years ago. The duplicity of the CIA towards those whom it recruited earlier on – such as Osama bin Laden – has already had terrible consequences.

Here is one area where the Obama Administration needs to get a grip, and do it quickly.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Presidential Wordplay

On and on rumbles the argument over the EU President, what the role is, what the appointee would be expected to do, and of course who is in the running. The heat was turned up overnight when the Guardian reported that Pa Broon had asked two of his most senior civil servants to take soundings and maybe even do a little gentle lobbying – for Tony Blair, of course.

Team Brown has now denied that the Guardian report is true, but then, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Meanwhile, Young Dave isn’t happy at all about the idea of a Blair presidency, although he stopped short of echoing William ‘Ague, who said that the Tories would view Blair as Prez as a “hostile act”. Cameron says that a President is an emblem of statehood, which suggests he may have forgotten that the UK is a nation state, and doesn’t have one.

Dave says that the position should be more “chairmanic”. What that? The post, with no formal powers – something I touched upon the other day – looks more of a chairman role in any case. He is, though, unequivocally against Blair getting it, though he’s not mentioning referenda, or digging up “Shagger” Major’s idea of non cooperation (probably as well).

In the meantime, some concern is being raised about the effect of the upcoming Chilcot enquiry on Blair’s future. But this suggests that Sir John will manage something that all the other enquiries have not: getting something to stick to the proverbial Teflon.

With Or Without You

The week started in den Haag in a state of apparent farce: the trial of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, anticipated for so long not least by survivors and relatives of the dead, had to be postponed as the accused didn’t show. Karadzic, who is defending himself, claimed he needed more time to prepare his defence – several months more.

Fortunately, this ridiculous state of affairs was not allowed to continue, and today the trial has started without him. Perhaps a defence lawyer will have to be imposed on Karadzic: there is no way he should be allowed to evade the witnesses, their testimonies, and ultimately the due process of law.

In wars, there is conflict and combat: all participants take casualties. This is the inevitable and unavoidable consequence of such fighting. In Bosnia, however, the actions of the Bosnian Serbs under the political leadership of Karadzic, and the military command of the still free Ratko Mladic, were on several occasions not those of combat, but of the killing fields. Moreover, civilians – especially in the city of Sarajevo – were routinely and deliberately targeted.

Now that Slobodan Milosevic, whose ambition broke apart the state of Yugoslavia, is dead, Karadzic stands as the principal accused. Look well into those eyes: this is the man who spoke of Sarajevo becoming a cauldron, in which 300,000 Muslims would die.

Monday 26 October 2009

They’re Not Finished Yet

Just because the media on this side of the Atlantic hasn’t been paying much attention to the Obama Administration’s push on healthcare reform doesn’t mean that it’s gone quiet.

In fact, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is on the case right now. The number of votes is significant: getting sixty Senators behind any legislation prevents the opposition from filibustering. And, given the ferocity of Republican dissent, there is no doubt that they have a filibuster ready to deploy.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this one.

Fair Shares?

Today, the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the seventeenth Baronet, made his well trailed announcement on bank bonus payments. The basic thrust of his idea is straightforward: any bonus of more than 2,000 notes has to be paid in shares. Sounds reasonable. But a regular visitor to Zelo Street had already been in touch to point out that this kind of scheme has a downside.

Bonus payments made in company shares are commonplace in the USA, and that has implications for many UK workers, if their firms are based (or, as current speak likes to put it, headquartered) in the US. Some share bonuses are substantial in size, and human nature being what it is, their recipients have hit on a way of making them yet bigger: take actions which will get the share price moving upwards.

And those getting the biggest bonuses are invariably in that rare position: being able to influence policy directly. This they do. The result is, generally, that those at the bottom of the pile get worked harder (also known as “sweating assets”), along with less generous conditions of work, together with the occasional pay cut. This kind of behaviour plays well with investors, who then favour the company by buying their shares. Investors and management are both happy.

However, the continual handing out of tranches of shares in lieu of bonus payments has a drawback: it dilutes the capital base of the company. So what? Well, the effect of more and more shares being issued merely to keep within bonus rules, rather than on the back of actual growth, is likely to put downward pressure on their price. So management have to take yet more action to keep the value going up. No prizes for guessing who gets to take the hit.

Of course, those bonuses could – make that should – be paid out of profits, but if the law says they have to be paid in shares, the temptation is routinely to print shares and leave the profit alone: after all, the more profit available for share dividends, the better the price commanded by the shares.

Not only has Young Dave’s pal not touched on any of this, neither have Labour or the Lib Dems. As with the credit crunch and bank bailouts, politicians generally pick it up as they go along. They then tell of the correct calls made, of economies steadied and jobs saved.

But they tend not to lead.

Sunday 25 October 2009

No More Speed Czechs

Not long after the Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, appeared to relent on his decision to stall on the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, the subject of the President of the EU has been doing the rounds yet again. The boy Miliband went on the Andy Marr Show today, firstly to quash the daft idea that he would be after a berth over in Brussels (a rumour that has had the right leaning froth brigade generating yet more froth), and secondly to bat for Tony Blair.

The Prez business is generating a lot of column inches, not to mention the attention from the blogosphere, but what nobody seems to be asking is whether the post is anything more than a figurehead, someone who would be a roving ambassador for the EU, its number one salesperson.

Fortunately, the consistently thoughtful Nosemonkey’s EUtopia blog has checked out the new post. And some interesting conclusions are drawn: for instance, the post is for just two and a half years – half the term length of both the President of the European Commission (Jose Manuel Barroso at present) and EU High Representative (currently Javier Solana). It has no formal powers. It doesn’t end the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU, which will continue to be held for six months at a time by each member state.

I can only echo the conclusion made by Nosemonkey: it’s a meaningless position, and we’re getting the whole thing out of proportion.

No change there, then.

Funny Old Game

Worst run of Liverpool results for decades, criticism of manager Rafa Benítez (and, on the subject of lack of firepower, justified), the thought of yet another season not at the top of the pile, and the next game just happens to be Man U.

And then guess what – the Red Devils get sent back home empty handed, and the title race is still close, with those teams just four points apart. Interesting to see that Nemanja Vidic loves going after the Reds so much that he came away with one – three sendings off in three. And Michael Owen nearly featured, but didn’t.

Benítez has figured one thing out very well: things can be going badly for your team, but if you turn over Man U, the fans will love you for it. The man from Parla ain’t daft.

Friday 23 October 2009

And Then He Was Gone

And there I was thinking that, with the Drivers’ Championship settled, that would be that for F1 this season. Perhaps it’s his manager’s brinkmanship, but the story that Jenson Button may be off to McLaren won’t be happy viewing for Ross Brawn.

At first the thought of the last two world champions lining up together looks like the ideal partnership. But the last time McLaren hired the reigning world champion, that was Fernando Alonso, and it ended with neither of their drivers getting the title, together with the removal of their constructors’ championship points and a hefty fine for being caught in possession of an awful lot of supposedly confidential data from rivals Ferrari.

Button and Lewis Hamilton can’t both be top man at McLaren. And if Button thinks that Hamilton will be as friendly and easy going as Rubens Barrichello, he’s got another think coming. Lewis is a very determined bloke: he’s seen off Alonso, and if he has to, he’ll see off Button.

Jenson might be best advised staying put.

Reflections on the Departure of the Number 88

So Question Time has come and gone. As I predicted earlier, BNP Oberscheissenführer Nick Griffin was indeed the fish in the barrel, and he ended up getting shot. But whether the sight of the odious Griffin getting his views shot to bits counted for or against him is still being hotly debated, despite the subject of the shooting making a complaint to the Beeb about his treatment.

One regular visitor to Zelo Street, who had been out and about at the time of the broadcast, felt that many of last night’s pub goers were actually sympathising with Griffin, even though he was losing each and every argument – “Dubya Bush Syndrome” as he put it. It’s an interesting point: Griffin is not daft, as you would expect from a Cambridge graduate.

But some of his potential electorate identify with him, because they think that he’s being put on for not being as educated as the establishment. The Beeb did a vox pop in Dagenham today and some of the responses support the idea of Griffin being the victim.

However, there is one undisputed winner from the show: Question Time can normally expect to pull in two million viewers. They got eight million last night.

Thursday 22 October 2009

Sorry, Don’s Not Playing

Back in April, I reflected on the loss of the British Grand Prix to Silverstone, the circuit that had hosted the race back in the year that Formula 1 was founded, 1950. I was never confident that Donington would shape up as an alternative, especially given the local road network’s difficulty coping with crowds smaller than could be expected at a Grand Prix.

So it came as no surprise when, at the end of September, the news came through that the Midlands circuit had been unable to raise the finance. Now, it seems that, even after Donington was given more time to come up with the goods, it has been unable to do so.

What now? The only realistic option is for Bernie Ecclestone to open talks with Damon Hill and his pals at the BRDC – and for the British Grand Prix to return home.

To Silverstone.

A Cautionary Tale – 4

As I discovered after returning from Amsterdam last month, the industry that feeds on the contents of airline passengers’ checked luggage is still flourishing, either here or in the Netherlands – or maybe both. I also discovered that the various law enforcement offices were apparently not minded to do anything about it. In fact, the only folks willing to lend a hand were those selling replacements for the item stolen.

The missing item was my LumpCam (tm), which I had been using to record the sights of the various cities visited during the year, and its disappearance is the sole reason that my ever growing Fotopic site has no record of the highlights from visits to Amsterdam, den Haag and Rotterdam.

What evidence do I have of the utility of carrying another camera on my travels? Well, there was the Castle, Tyn Church and Charles Bridge in Prague, and Schönbrunn Palace, the Hochstrahlbrunnen, and Secession Building in Vienna. And the big wheel that was in the Third Man.

So missing the photos that had been painstakingly assembled during my stay in Amsterdam, and not having anything done about it, caused me to take the matter further. As investigations are proceeding, I’ll say no more on that front, except for one positive piece of news.

The Police at Liverpool John Lennon Airport have been in touch, partly to get some details, partly to apologise for the earlier behaviour of their colleagues at Allerton, and partly to confirm that the theft is not merely being taken seriously, but is being investigated.

The missing LumpCam (tm) may well, given the passage of time, remain missing. But if the Police manage, through their investigations, to put a stop to this industry, some good will have come out of the exercise.

More updates as and when ...

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Out Of Order – 4

Another day, more complaints, and no sign yet of contrition or apology from the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, or his so far unrepentant columnist Jan Moir.

The number of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) over the unpleasant Mail hatchet job on the memory of the unfortunate Stephen Gately has now passed 25,000, and the latest notable addition is that of Gately’s record label Polydor. The singer’s family have not yet made a decision on whether to add their weight to the numbers.

Are we any closer to an apology? Doubtful. Who will make it, if one comes? Well, there’s one person who won’t be apologising – and that’s Paul Dacre.

Realignment of the Wrong – It’s Getting Fraught

Out there in the blogosphere and within the press, right leaning pundits are starting to push back against the accusations being made against the Tories’ leader in the European Parliament (EP), Michal Kaminski. As I noted previously, Kaminski’s stance, as well as his past, has brought criticism.

Now it’s the turn of the Obama Administration to voice concern: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to host Shadow Foreign Secretary William ‘Ague in Washington. And Hill is under pressure to say something about Young Dave’s new pals in the EP. Moreover, the US would find it far easier to have the UK in the European mainstream: if we were at the fringe of the EU (or not in it at all), what point would there be in the so-called “Special Relationship”?

And what the Tory supporting punditry has to remember is that, while many parties across the EU have members who have done questionable things in the past, Michal Kaminski is their leader in the EP now, and the stance he has taken, and which has generated all the flak, is the one he is, more or less, taking now.

In the background, of course, is the thought that the Tories’ new EP grouping is another box to tick off with their new supporter, Murdoch the Interfering Foreigner, while Hillary Clinton is representing an Administration which has set itself on a potential collision course with him.

As Private Eye might have said, “I wonder if the two are in any way related? I think we should be told”.

More Travellers on the Number 88

It’s been admitted by the Beeb that tomorrow’s Question Time audience will have some BNP members in it. Is that a good or bad thing? Will it make Dimbleby senior’s refereeing job a little fraught?

Ah well. Yesterday, BNP Oberscheissenführer Nick Griffin was put on the spot after the news that a convocation of former military top brass had passed adverse comment on attempts by the far right (meaning the BNP) to appropriate national symbols like the Spitfire. Griffin loused up badly, making a gratuitous comparison of British generals to the commanders of Hitler’s armies.

The thought occurs that his followers might, when put in the spotlight (or even searchlight) – the QT audience is not hidden from the view of the cameras – put their collective feet in their mouths with equal aplomb.

On The Buses

Yesterday a small brochure was posted to most houses in Crewe. It helpfully shows timetables for all the area’s bus services, and a quick scan shows how few of these there now are, together with a stark demonstration of how fractured this travel mode has become.

Some services are run on what is called a “commercial” basis: the operators, in this case Arriva (as successors to Crosville) and First (as successors to PMT) run them without subsidy. And there aren’t many of them, with some routes having had a reduction in frequency recently – the Arriva 6 from four an hour to three, and the First 20 from three an hour to two.

Many services are nowadays provided with local Government subsidy, and most in the Crewe area are run by D&G Bus. Sometimes this operator takes over from Arriva of an evening, as operators are under no obligation to cross subsidise between day and evening services – so they do not.

It goes without saying that each operator issues their own tickets, which are only accepted on their buses. So any idea of integration goes out of the window, and in any case, by now, those who can have bought a car, making the bus a remaindered transport mode.

Thus more than twenty glorious years of deregulation – as in failure.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Out Of Order – 3

The latest total for complaints to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) over Jan Moir’s singularly nasty Daily Mail hatchet job on the memory of Stephen Gately reached 22,000 over the weekend, and hasn’t stopped yet. That number is apparently more than the PCC had received in total up until last week’s events.

But will anything come of it? The Mail has been permitting its columnists to dissent from the Moir view: perhaps its legendarily foul mouthed editor, Paul Dacre, believes that this will calm his readership and prevent any dissidents taking their custom elsewhere.

However, there is unlikely to be any real condemnation from the PCC: this is a body that demonstrates superbly how self regulation of the newspaper business is a sick joke. Especially when the chairman of its Code Committee is, er, Paul Dacre.

Please yourself ethics: why folks get cynical about the press.

The Green Tornado

Back in 1990, in the north eastern town of Darlington, someone had a daft idea. The discussion, by a group of rail enthusiasts, had been around the fact that, when BR was running down the use of steam traction, many locomotive types had been wiped out without any examples being saved for preservation. So, the argument went, the only way to see one or more of these back on the railway would be to build them from scratch.

So what? Well, for a while, nothing happened, but then in 1993 the decision was taken to actually build a steam locomotive in the UK, which had not been achieved since 1960. Few of the skills required still existed, but once the idea took hold, there was no stopping the process. The new machine would be an A1 class Pacific to the design of Arthur Peppercorn, last Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), and would complete the set to go with A2 Blue Peter, A3 Flying Scotsman, and a clutch of streamlined A4s like the one named after their designer Sir Nigel Gresley.

Ultimately the new locomotive cost a cool three million notes, but is now out and about paying some of that money off. An association with the RAF brought the name Tornado, with one nameplate carrying the motto of the base at Leeming, with the other showing that of Cottesmore.

Was it worth it? Well, if the number of punters prepared to travel behind Tornado is anything to go by (it’s not easy to find a free seat, whether you go Standard Class or shell out for Premier Dining), the signs are good. And if the size of the galleries is taken into account, there can be no doubt: sometimes you have to really want to get a sight of this machine.

Fortunately, we in Crewe had our own photo session recently as Tornado stopped off en route from a tour in the north west before setting off for her next temporary base.

And has this exhausted those who saw the project through? Not a bit of it. They’re all for building another loco as soon as they clear the debts for this one.

Daft? Certifiable, more like.

The Republican Wrong – Getting Desperate

Another day, another ridiculous assertion comes out of the studios of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) aimed at the Obama Administration. This time it’s over volunteering, which looks on the face of it to be pretty uncontroversial.

Not, it seems, when viewed through the twisted prism that is Glenn Beck. Fox’s increasingly eccentric “star” sees dark forces at work here, and has concluded that the Government is trying to turn the USA into a Communist state. He says it’s “almost like we’re living in Mao’s China right now”.

His take is that the Government, Hollywood and “The Media” (which Fox presenters routinely assert is in the pocket of “liberals”) are attempting to “control” people’s lives, merely because they are encouraging them to participate in their communities.

It’s ridiculous and inflammatory – and Rupert Murdoch could stop it dead if he so wanted. As he hasn’t stopped it, the conclusion is straightforward – and we still don’t know what Young Dave has promised him in return for his endorsement, although the Shadow Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has been sabre rattling at the BBC once more.

Rupe will like that. And he’d like to impose a UK Fox News Channel on us, too.

A Fiddle Too Far

The realisation that they might be seen as propping up a corrupt Government seems to have galvanised the United Nations, and the USA in particular, over the fallout from recent elections in Afghanistan. As I posted previously, there have been calls from within the US for that country to disengage from the conflict, perhaps driven by the memory of Vietnam, where one corrupt politician followed another, as in a revolving door, while the local military proved unable or unwilling to successfully tackle an enemy a fraction of their size.

Now, the scale of vote rigging has been, more or less, acknowledged, and there is to be a second round of voting – which means that claims by incumbent President Hamid Karzai that he got more than 50% of the vote, making him the clear winner, cannot be sustained because of the number of suspect votes. The arm-twisting has been achieved by a variety of players, notably Senator John Kerry, and also Peter Galbraith (son of J K) who was sacked by Ban-Ki Moon for his whistleblowing.

Even so, the ethnic make-up of Afghanistan suggests that Karzai will poll the largest number of votes, as he’s a Pashtun, and they are the largest ethnic bloc in the country. If the vote rigging is reduced – it may be asking too much to eliminate it completely – there may be a greater legitimacy to the next Government, and this in turn could pave the way for the US to send more troops, but the questions as to what we are all doing there will not go away.

Back in the 60s, Harold Wilson kept the UK out of Vietnam: apart from the dubious nature of the adventure, we couldn’t afford it. Tony Blair had no such qualms, and now we’re seemingly in the country for a long, long time. Young Dave doesn’t have a massively different take, though the Lib Dems may be moving towards opposition.

If Nick Clegg grasps this nettle, expect the usual righteous sneering from the kind of folks who are unlikely to have to put themselves in the firing line. Just like they all sneered at Charles Kennedy over Iraq.

And who called that one correctly?

Monday 19 October 2009

Barry’s Mission – The Main Man

Over the weekend, a little more has emerged on the spat between the White House and Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). Senior advisor David Axelrod has been unequivocal in his assessment: “It’s not really news”. But the man to watch in these exchanges was on CNN, and that was Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. And it’s Emanuel who is the main man, bar none.

He worked tirelessly for Bill Clinton, and his confirmation in office by Barack Obama was not greeted with universal enthusiasm – well, not by supporters of the GOP, anyway: Emanuel is regarded as tribal and partisan, but in reality he’s very good at what he does, and has no hesitation in saying what he thinks. And what he thinks right now is that the time has come to face down Rupe’s shock troops at Fox.

Emanuel is a straightforward operator, and he is smiling and courteous, but with him there are basic rules: you don’t screw with him, and you sure as hell don’t screw with his boss. What we are seeing is that he’s decided that Fox are in the latter camp, and he isn’t going to let them off lightly.

As far as is known, Emanuel doesn’t vary those rules, not even if your name is Rupert Murdoch. Fox should be careful: Emanuel will have thought it all through before making his move.

One to watch.

And Well Done Jenson

Some time ago I posted that every point could count in this year’s Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship, and yesterday at Interlagos Jenson Button proved the point by tigering his way to four more of them and thereby keeping a lead of more than ten points over his nearest challenger – who is now Sebastian Vettel – to ensure he is World Champion for 2009. His team, Brawn GP, also won the Constructors’ Championship by ensuring that they are more than 18 points (a one-two finish) ahead of the competition, which is headed by Vettel’s team, Red Bull Racing.

Button’s six wins netted him sixty points, but all those bits-and-bats finishes have put more than another twenty on top of that, and that has made the difference. He has needed to keep chipping away as the opposition has caught up on Brawn’s early season advantage.

The Beeb’s coverage pointed out that Brawn were the first team to net the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships in their first season, which is correct, but the real parallel is with Ken Tyrrell’s team in 1971. Tyrrell had entered his own team in 1970 – he and Jackie Stewart had little choice, as their previous Matra chassis was no longer available with the engine they wanted – but with the solid yet increasingly uncompetitive March 701. They didn’t field their own car until the end of the season, and in their first full season with their own machinery, they won seven Grands Prix.

That might not seem a lot nowadays, but in 1971 there were only eleven races in the season. Tyrrell were way ahead of the opposition, but it was to be their only Constructors’ crown. Will that be the fate of Ross Brawn?

Sunday 18 October 2009

Well Done Beth

Something for folks in Crewe to celebrate: local lass Beth Tweddle has just scored a gold medal in the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships (at London’s O2 Arena) today – and in the Floor exercises, which isn’t her favourite discipline.

Why the Beeb refers to her as being from Liverpool I don’t know. Perhaps Crewe isn’t a famous enough place for someone to hail from. And she’s relatively old for someone in this kind of sport, so how old is that?


Out Of Order – 2

There was a mention during the Andy Marr Show paper review this morning, as I thought there would be yesterday, about reaction to the Daily Mail’s singularly nasty hatchet job on the memory of the unfortunate Stephen Gately. Pity there wasn’t a bit more time spent on it, but the point was made.

The tenor of most of the follow up coverage has been that the condition that caused Gately’s death had nothing to do with his being gay, together with a general adverse reaction to Jan Moir’s use of innuendo, and nudge-nudge attitude, towards people in same sex relationships.

Whether the Mail and its legendarily foul mouthed editor, Paul Dacre, eventually understand that it’s no longer acceptable to sneer at homosexuals is not yet certain – and this is a paper that is rather quicker to scream for apologies than it is to give them. Perhaps Dacre could listen to the one word assessment of the Moir article by Marr’s paper reviewer Dan Snow.


Saturday 17 October 2009

Barry’s Mission Continues

For those in the UK who might have thought that all had gone quiet on the healthcare debate Stateside: it hasn’t. There have been several TV adverts placed by insurance companies trying to frighten folks off anything coming from the Obama administration, backed up by attacks from in and around the GOP, and in the meantime there has been much activity on Capitol Hill.

Today, in his weekly radio address, Barack Obama has come out fighting, and he has the insurance lobby in his sights. His key soundbite: “National interest versus special interests”. It’s warming up nicely: it will be interesting to see whether Obama can make progress where Bill Clinton – and others – were defeated.

The serving of the public purpose in the USA is once again less than straightforward.

Out Of Order

The Daily Mail, under the less than benign editorship of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, has a straightforward formula: serve up a diet of stories that matches the readers’ view of the world. Dacre and his hacks have decided that their readership does not approve of same sex relationships, and there have been a whole slew of catty and sniping pieces about homosexuals over the recent past. Some, like the appalling Peter McKay (aka Peter McLie, or the “World’s Worst Columnist”), who is behind the pisspoor Ephraim Hardcastle column, have made it their more or less sole calling.

So when Boyzone star Stephen Gately died suddenly last week at his holiday home in Mallorca, it was only a matter of time before the nudge-nudge brigade at the Mail went into action. Gately was gay, and was on holiday with his long time partner, but so what? Ah well.

Friday saw the Mail put the boot into Gately’s memory, the chosen hack being Jan Moir. The article has been discussed enough over the past day for me not to need to quote from it – it was snide, sniping, complete with an overlay of innuendo, and put directly, it was bang out of order. Except to those in the Mail bunker, who have given the impression that they’ve been the victims of a wicked and orchestrated campaign: they just don’t get it.

The Tabloid Watch blog has been on the case (as one would expect), and so, in characteristic style, has Big Al, who detests the Mail already. Not sure how he’s going to broach this with Pa Broon, who is on surprisingly good terms with Paul Dacre.

Tabloid Watch has compared the Mail’s behaviour here to its crowing at the Beeb over what became known as Sachsgate. Will we get to see an apology? Any apology? The Mail, at least, must have realised they’ve loused up – perhaps one good thing to come out of the sorry business will be an engagement of brain before laying into gays in future.

Expect to see this one mentioned during the paper review on tomorrow’s Andy Marr Show. Hopefully not by Amanda Platell.

Friday 16 October 2009

The Republican Wrong – The Reason Why

Comments on blogs or news website posts can be tedious and repetitive, but once in a while you get a worthwhile one. And today, deep down a comment thread on an item posted on The Huffington Post, I found such a comment.

It summed up the reason for the attitude of the Right thus: “the Prez is Barack Obama, the Secretary of State is Hillary Clinton and the House Speaker is Nancy Pelosi – the three most powerful people in the USA are a black guy and two women ... no wonder the GOP is so upset.”

Got it in one, I suspect.

Bring Me Sunlight – 2

The Sunlight Centre for Open Politics has published a report which they hope will stop abuse of the Parliamentary expenses system. The foreword has been written by Douglas Carswell MP. Who he?

Carswell is one of the 2005 intake of Tory newcomers, and sits for the constituency of Harwich and Clacton. With a majority of less than a thousand, you might think that he would be diligent (which he certainly appears to be) and non-controversial (which he certainly is not). He has co-authored a book called The Plan, which modestly claims the strapline “Twelve months to renew Britain”, with our friend Dan, Dan the Oratory Man. He’s into “localism”, but whether that influence can work on a Cameron Government is unclear: letting go of power has not, in recent years, come easily to either party when elected.

So what kind of opinions does Doug have on offer? We can get a good sample by looking in on his blog, which he updates regularly. And three strands are quickly made apparent.

Doug doesn’t like the EU. Moreover, he doesn’t want folks to become knowledgeable about it: he’s dead set against the idea of children being taught about it, and has labelled an MEP who has put forward the idea an “extremist”. I find it fascinating how those who are most screamingly anti-EU are also hell bent on folks not getting any kind of information about it. What’s he frightened of?

Whatever. Let’s plough on. Home education. Doug’s hot on that. He gets lots of flattering comments on the subject, but I’m not sure. Part of going to school is that you learn to interact with others, and experience the outside world, and all the good, bad and indifferent things it has to offer. Cramming kids at home to pass a range of exams doesn’t equip them for figuring out anything beyond the front door.

But you have to be a little more persistent to get to the real pearl of Carswell wisdom, which is climate change. He doesn’t believe in it – well, not the man made variety, anyhow. Brave bloke, given the area he represents. Which part of receding Arctic ice, increased frequency of Thames Barrier raising, and changing climate patterns he doesn’t understand I don’t know, but one thing I do: it’s the BBC’s fault.

So, in summary, this warrior for greater transparency doesn’t want it to extend to finding out about the EU, doesn’t want views on the environment put forward unless their balance has his approval, and wants children to have an alternative to the real world.

Yeah, right.

He’s Back – Sort Of Official

And there I was, looking to switch off the TV and get a moderately early night. Yesterday evening, the Beeb’s North West snippets following the main “Ten O’Clock” bulletin (we do love our twelve hour clock) featured a visit to the area by Pa Broon, who was then shown taking part in a radio phone-in. There were predictable answers: the Brown family sit down to the X-Factor on Saturday evenings, so get the updates on Strictly Come Dancing from Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole, for instance. Then came the Blackburn versus Burnley derby.

Jack Straw is a Blackburn fan – we know that. And there was their example Burnley fan, Alastair Campbell. I didn’t catch the first part of the title: the complete moniker was either Senior Strategist or Chief Strategist. Either way, the impression was given that he was now part of the Labour team – by Brown himself.

So there it is – sort of officially: Big Al is back on board. That’ll give the Tories and Lib Dems something to think about, not to mention an array of less than Labour friendly bloggers.

Meanwhile, I’ll sit back and enjoy yet more excellent spectator sport.

Thursday 15 October 2009

A Stroll Across The Astroturf – 6

As promised a few days ago, I’ve been looking more closely at the hangers on from the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Astroturf group which enjoys the support of a whopping 0.064% of UK taxpayers, and in particular at the bloggings of Mike Denham – oops, Wat Tyler – who I see is credited by the TPA as being a “research fellow”.

Mike – oops, sorry, I mean Wat – had a go yesterday at something called the Grun, which is Mike’s (or is that Wat’s?) hilariously clever nickname for the Guardian (so those wacky TPA folks really do have a sense of humour – perhaps). He asserts that the Guardian “accuses the TPA of being a front for the Tory Party ... “, but anyone following the link helpfully provided can see that the assertion is wrong.

The Guardian article notes that there are those who accuse the TPA of being a Tory front organisation, but then gives the TPA’s own view, which counters the accusation. This is known as balanced journalism: that Denham – oops, Tyler – cannot or will not take this on board is noted, and I will leave others to make their own conclusions.

This inability to recall accurately does not dismay me: on the contrary, I consider it singularly instructive. Anyone going on to read anything posted by the TPA’s “research fellow” will have at the back of their mind Denham’s lapse in interpretation – deliberate or otherwise – and may therefore give his writings less credence than they might otherwise have done.

Put simply, Mike Denham – oops, Wat Tyler – has demonstrated superbly how to spray on his own firework.

Crikey Readers, More Dosh Required!

Earlier this week, Dave Hill decided to stick his neck out and wager a tenner that Mayor of London Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson would increase the city’s Congestion Charge from eight quid a day to ten. By yesterday, following Mayor’s Question Time (MQT), Hill was sufficiently convinced that the increase was imminent that he was volunteering a variety of goods as parts of an enhanced wager offer.

And so it came to pass: the C-Charge is indeed increasing to a tenner a day, but it isn’t the only price hike. Tube fares are also rising, by just under 4%, but it’s the 12.7% rise in bus fares that has started the ruckus. And the seven day bus pass will go up by a shade over 20%. There has been a predictable amount of Ken bashing by the Johnson administration to try and deflect blame.

And one item in the announcement hints at a possible, but so far strenuously denied, about turn: Johnson is said to be “minded” to carry on with abandoning the western extension to the C-Charge zone, which was a manifesto commitment. If he has to make the U-turn, it’s likely to come at a time not unadjacent to the next General Election.


The Czech’s not for Bouncing

I’ve been perusing a few blogs from the right-leaning and libertarian part of the spectrum this morning – well, someone has to do it – and have found a strange absence in the coverage of one story: that the Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, has decided to dig his heels in and not ratify the Lisbon Treaty.

And neither could I find the story in a quick trawl of the Beeb website, although I’ll pass on the conspiracy theory angle so beloved of the froth merchants. But, once again, I digress. The Irish have now ratified Lisbon, following the recent second Referendum, and the Poles have followed suit. So the only country left on the ratification roadshow is the Czech Republic.

Klaus, whatever his intentions, is clearly playing hard to get, not returning calls and otherwise being out of town. But in his country, the President has to say yes, even though Lisbon has been through the legislature and signed off. What pressure may be being brought to bear on him within his own country and from elsewhere in the EU will bring hours of harmless fun for those of a conspiracy theory bent.

And where better to start than with one blogger who is on the case? Step forward Dan, Dan the Oratory Man, who has penned a priceless post on the matter. Hannan, in characteristic style, tells of dark plotting – though on this we have to take him at his word – and then goes off into ranting and name-calling. If only he were to put his argument calmly and rationally, laying out the facts, he might be credible away from his fan base.

Meanwhile, Klaus is still not returning calls. But, of course, the stand-off cannot carry on indefinitely: expect push to come to shove by the end of the month.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Potentially Bumpy Journey of the Number 88

Strangely, the news reached me not via the Beeb – and, after all, it’s their programme – but the Guardian (once more). The edition of Question Time due to be broadcast a week tomorrow (that’s the 22nd), and which will feature BNP Oberscheissenführer Nick Griffin as well as Justice Secretary Jack Straw, will also have on its panel the playwright Bonnie Greer.

Griffin may not be fussed about this detail, but he should: Ms Greer is as sharp an intellect as any in the literary world. If Griffin thinks that getting past the potential demonstrations is his only worry, he should think again. This programme is shaping up to be like shooting fish in a barrel.

And Griffin is going to be the fish. Bang.

The Republican Wrong – It’s Over Here

The Obama Administration’s refusal to include Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) in the Prez’ interview schedule recently, and the subsequent war of words between the two, has now caught the eye of the Guardian. Fox commentators, like Bill O’Reilly, continue to insist that they’re taking a balanced view, but for many, the channel is a partisan attack dog.

Not least among the attackers is Glenn Beck, who today has topped his assertions that Barack Obama is a racist, and a communist, by characterising the approach of the Administration towards Fox as being in the same vein as the Nazi treatment of the Jews. It’s desperate, it’s unnecessary, and it’s, well, dirty.

At times like this, I recall words attributed to Lyndon Johnson, much of whose scatological humour was, as J K Galbraith put it, “lost in the laundry for public consumption”. I commend them to the Democratic Party.

"Never get into a pissing competition with a skunk"

Death Spiral

It isn’t often that we hear from those who have graced the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC). When we do, they demonstrate a range of independent thought: while there may be the view expressed that one or more of the banks should have been allowed to go to the wall, there is also the occasional trenchant pro-Euro member, such as Willem Buiter.

Now, economist David Blanchflower, who has served three years on the MPC, has made his views plain on the cuts debate. And the parallels he draws are interesting: the 80s recession, induced and made worse by the Thatcher Government’s brief love affair with Friedmanism, is one. The other is that of 1930s USA, when recovery from the Depression had started, but had not taken hold, before there was a move to balance the budget.

In the latter case, the response to urges from mainstream economists to move to a balanced budget can be forgiven: the conclusions that Keynes made in The General Theory Of Employment Interest And Money were not widely known, and not yet accepted. Moreover, whatever his politics, Franklin Roosevelt was reluctant to run a deficit.

But today, we have the lesson from the 30s in the USA, and its later reinforcement in early 80s UK. So the Government, whatever its stripe, should not go on a cutting spree until recovery is not only under way, but well established.

Unless it wants to re-learn the lesson one more time.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Barry’s On Another Mission

Peace prize or no, the Washington Post has found that Barack Obama has authorised another 13,000 troops for the conflict in Afghanistan – over and above previously announced levels. One reason for the deployment is, apparently, that these are mainly support forces, like engineers and medics. But they are troops all the same.

Maybe this deployment is part of an overarching strategy that will see numbers reduce over the longer term. But Afghanistan is one country that has, over the decades, resisted a succession of attempts to pacify it, and as I mentioned recently, will ultimately make its own decisions, and its own way. The steadily increased involvement brings echoes of Vietnam, as I touched upon last month, and the lesson for Obama is stark.

For Vietnam was what brought low another Democrat, that being Lyndon Johnson, who was, rather than JFK, the one who carried the torch of liberalism from the era of Franklin Roosevelt.

It would be a terrible lesson for any of his successors to have to re-learn.

Bring Me Sunlight

It’s all about transparency – to use the Internet to foster openness in Government. This is the message from the Sunlight Foundation, a non partisan body working out of Washington DC. Sunlight is hot on lobby influence, as you can see from their projects list, and right now they’re focusing on the healthcare lobby and its influence on the US Congress.

But we in the UK need not feel left out, as there is now an organisation here called the Sunlight Centre for Open Politics, which says it is “ ... inspired by and based on the ... Sunlight Foundation”. Sounds promising. So you might think that it, too, would be hot on the trail of the lobbyists.

Ah well. Look down the list of links, and there is the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (Yes, them. Again), a lobby group which, rather than practising the transparency it demands of others, is showing a reluctance to publish its accounts. Not a good sign.

So who is behind the Sunlight Centre? Two of its faces will be familiar to many: Chris Galley, who achieved a brief notoriety as the whistleblower behind Damian Green MP and his immigration campaign, and was then sacked from the Civil Service for his trouble, and Paul Staines, best known as the author of the Guido Fawkes blog.

The latter name may be the more influential: one of the current campaigns of the Sunlight Centre is the pursuit of Baroness Scotland, who is still in post although she was given a civil fine of 5,000 notes after failing to check that her housekeeper was legally in the UK. That same pursuit has featured in the Guido Fawkes blog extensively in recent weeks.

Exactly how this will enhance the transparency of politics, rather than bolster Staines’ attempt to score another political scalp, is not clear. Nor is there, as yet, any sign of who is backing the Sunlight Centre, although I’m sure its founder will rectify the omission in due course.

After all, it’s all about transparency.

A Stroll Across The Astroturf – 5

The so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, a group with grassroots support that extends to 0.064% of UK taxpayers, not only has its own website, but garners support from the blogosphere. Most ardent TPA supporter in this area, bar none, is the Burning Our Money blog, which is penned by someone who goes under the alias of Wat Tyler. The spiel includes a sentence starting “We the peasants demand ... “ which would be all the more credible if its author had taken the trouble to run successfully for elective office.

What can we deduce from this blog about the author otherwise known as Wat Tyler? Well, he’s hot on immigration, on the case of “benefit scroungers” (thus ticking boxes with the Daily Mail, Express, Sun and Star), and is pro capital punishment. But who is he?

Fortunately, the TPA comes to the rescue here: it too has a Burning Our Money section on its website (all the better to demonise Government), and the top post there right now is titled “A tax cut to cut Borrowing”. The BOM blog has an identical post – except for the title, which in the latter case is “Having a Laff” – by Wat Tyler, naturally. The TPA version is credited to Mike Denham. You can even see his photo here (scroll down to October 2).

Glad we cleared that up, Mike.

And, by the way, any chance that you folks will be publishing your accounts soon?

Monday 12 October 2009

A Stroll Across The Astroturf - 4

We are at long last seeing some light shed on the finances of the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance: they now admit to an annual income, apparently from donations, of more than a million pounds, and that their office space has been effectively donated, at an annual cost of over 100k.

And, in a piece in the Guardian, there is some idea of the kinds of people who support this lobby group, their views, and potential influences. The TPA now has a membership up from 20,000 to around 32,000. Wow. So that’s an increase from 0.04% of all tax payers to a whopping 0.064%. Save the drivel about this being a grass roots organisation – it’s another Astroturf group.

But it’s a well funded and, I would argue, malign force where any kind of Government is concerned. Typical of TPA supporters’ views is that voiced by David Wall, secretary of the Midlands Industrial Council (MIC), a group that has donated a million and a half quid to the Tories since 2003. Here’s his take on Government spending:

“ ... vast amounts of public money are being spent and we don’t get value for that money” [nothing is quoted in example to back this up]

Our members’ tax money is being wasted ... “ [nothing to back this up either]

David Alberto, who has donated the TPA’s office suite, is another with forthright views on Government spending:

It is wrong to be spending a greater and greater proportion of GDP on central Government” he says, without letting us know whether he means the Government itself, or public spending as a whole. And he, too, provides no figures or other backup for his assertion.

But the TPA does provide figures and analysis from time to time, as I noted a while back. Trouble is, the sums they did on that occasion didn’t stack up, and nor did their spokesman do better than attempt to bluster his skewerer off the ball.

Some argue that the TPA is a Tory front group, and “Shagger” Prescott (“traditional misbehaviour in a modern setting”) has added his voice to this group today. My take is as before: it’s just a load of very well off people who want to keep hold of their money. Whether it’s the Tories, or some other party, that assists them in this particular endeavour will not concern them overmuch.

I’ll return to the TPA and their hangers-on later.

Patient (non) Confidential

Health rumour time again, and again it’s Pa Broon: as the Beeb has described, the Prime Minister has been to Moorfields Eye Hospital, one of three centres of excellence in the UK, for his vision to be checked.

Having been a regular visitor to one of the other two centres (in my case, the Royal Liverpool), there’s one worrying thought that occurs following this rumour, and the previous one about the PM’s supposed medication.

And it’s this: Patient Confidentiality. Either someone outside the healthcare system is doing the leaking, or it’s coming from inside. And if it’s the latter, whether the information is about someone with a high public profile or merely Joe or Joanne Public is immaterial.

In any instance, breaching patient confidentiality is out of order.

Hiving Off, Privatising, or Asset Sale?

Back in the days of Sailor Heath’s early 70s Government, a state owned asset was sold, that being the Carlisle brewery, which had been nationalised during the Great War. At the time, the future Tory mood music was not yet in place, and the sale was described as “hiving off”. There was remarkably little fanfare or enthusiasm, which may seem strange, as the private sector is the obvious place for such an industry.

Things were rather different in the Thatcher years, certainly once the Tories had got themselves re-elected: a whole raft of state owned industries were sold, and contrary to some views, they weren’t all basket cases. BT wasn’t. The gas and electricity companies either weren’t, or need not have been. And the TSB wasn’t, and it’s possible it wasn’t HMG’s to sell – but what the heck? Off they all went into private hands, for one off payments, the shares often priced, shall we say, to go.

But what goes around, comes around: Pa Broon announces a sell off and the response seems to have gone back to the early 70s, and perhaps beyond: what was enthusiastically applauded in the Thatcher years is now criticised. With one part of that criticism I agree: it’s not good to sell off an asset at what may be the bottom of the market.

Perhaps beggars cannot be choosers. We will see.

Sunday 11 October 2009

Nobody’s House Journal

Some time ago, Alastair Campbell and his pals at Team Blair were disabused of any thought that the Guardian might give them an easy ride (and Big Al is not happy with the meeja in general right now), so you might think that the lesson would not need re-learning.

But the re-learning is happening over at Tory Party HQ, with Saturday’s Guardian being a superb example of independent spirit: on the front page there is a less than helpful article suggesting that the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the seventeenth Baronet, “mis-summed” in his calculations. And it’s not a minor error: this one is to do with the raising of the pension age. And it’s three billion quid.

Then, in the Observer today, Toby Helm (who’s getting good at this kind of thing) has given the Tories both barrels on the Michal Kaminsky business. Helm has also co-authored another Observer piece, this one on the more general subject of the Tories’ alliances in the European Parliament.

The conclusion to be drawn is straightforward: anyone who thinks that the Guardian is a puppet of one or other political party is not dealing from a full deck.

Friday 9 October 2009

The Republican Wrong – Now They’re Angry

Norway. All those fjords. Cold in winter. Peaceable folk. So much so that they award the Nobel Peace Prize. And this year, they managed to turn the award into one heck of a grenade, which has gone off all over the commentariat of US politics, because the recipient is Barack Obama.

Not all liberal leaning folks are supportive of the award: the Guardian’s Michael White, not known for reactionary thought, isn’t impressed. It’s an interesting line he takes, but it should be borne in mind that the award is not necessarily for achievement of peace, but also for aspiration and approach. Obama’s approach to areas such as nuclear proliferation, the Palestinian problem, and Iran has worked in his favour.

But it’s the right wing of US politics where the real unhappiness and dissatisfaction is showing itself. The deeply unpleasant Rush Limbaugh has been, well, deeply unpleasant about the award. Other conservative commentators have been dismissive. And, just to show that they’re up for a fight, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) have accused the Republicans of siding with terrorists, as the GOP and its supporters have come out against the award. So it’s warming up nicely.

I commend Sam Stein’s post to anyone who wants to get a handle on this story. And yes, I’ll have another look later.

[UPDATE: John McCain has responded in a measured and positive way to the award. So that’s him ostracised by the GOP then]

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier ... Politician

Why should anyone be surprised? Hardly had he stepped down as head of the Army, in which capacity he was persistently criticising the Government, than General Richard “Morny” Dannatt has joined Young Dave’s chaps as an advisor. Denials all round.

It’s an assumption that some make, and maybe make wrongly, that the Army top brass are closet Tories. But in this case, given the apparently indecent haste with which Dannatt has joined the Tory cause, the assumption looks to be spot on.

Will it make any difference to the conflict in Afghanistan? Probably not in any significant measure. As with Iraq, the USA is taking the lead in the number of troops they are putting “into theatre”. The UK’s role is to some extent merely fitting in to the overall plan.

Will Dannatt’s presence make our troops better equipped and otherwise resourced? That rather depends on whether all the stories of poor equipment are true, and whether the Tory idea of cutting the Ministry of Defence by 25% - but maintaining the troop levels – will work.

Cameron’s talk of increasing those levels, and then bringing the troops home (in yesterday’s speech to the party faithful) isn’t a good sign: there are centuries of evidence of what leaving the Afghans to their own devices means. Whether the Afghan Army is trained well, badly, or indifferently, they and their Government (whatever form it takes) will, after we have gone, choose its own direction.

That direction may not leave us best pleased. Dannatt’s tactics will not matter.

What’s Up, Doc?

So the man who would be the Good Doctor, the one who prescribes the medicine for the British people and their country, has spoken. Young Dave’s speech – given a suitably rapturous reception by the Tory faithful – told us what a steep climb he foresaw, and contained lots of the usual rhetoric. But it is what it didn’t contain that is significant.

In a speech that lasted for the best part of an hour, there was no mention of banks, bonuses, the banking system – or markets. Given the amount of time and energy Pa Broon and his cabinet have had to expend on those areas in a period of just over a year, and the significance they have to the wellbeing of the UK, that’s an omission of non trivial size.

He also laid into Labour over poverty, although the Tories will not be repealing the Minimum Wage, which may just have helped hundreds of thousands of the least well off – and which his party opposed consistently. Neither will he cut the Sure Start programme. Or the independence of the Bank of England. Or the ability of same sex couples to enter into Civil Partnerships, an area in which Cameron – who resisted the repeal of Section 28 – has managed to finesse expertly, exemplified by his good wishes to Alan Duncan on his Civil Partnership, but his lack of appearance at the ceremony.

So we know that Young Dave is a shrewd politician, but not how he would face a major crisis, such as that which so nearly brought down more than one of the big banks. Nor do we know how a Tory Government will approach the economy – and, after all, as Bill Clinton’s team pointed out during his 1992 Presidential campaign, “it’s the economy, stupid”. Will they move to cut spending and induce a slump along the lines of the early 80s – or 1937 USA? Are they pragmatists merely talking up the challenge, only to take a more nuanced line after getting elected, or are they really going to slash and burn?

We would be better served by knowing before the General Election. But, chances are, we won’t know until he’s in Downing Street. Bit late then.

Thursday 8 October 2009

The Republican Wrong – They’ll Hate This

Out there on the right of the US political spectrum, there are a lot of folks who have one belief in common, and that is their Christian faith. And when you really believe what the Bible teaches, then you have a problem with homosexuality. Hence the potentially devastating effect on the Anglican communion of Gene Robinson being ordained a bishop: Robinson was not celibate and is gay.

So those on the right are not going to be pleased at the news that Barack Obama plans to nominate an openly gay man to be US Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa. And, so what? David Huebner wouldn’t be the first openly gay Ambassador, and if he’s the best candidate, it should be no big deal – plus it demonstrates an acknowledgement of, and commitment to, diversity and equality.

That isn’t how the right is going to see it. Not when one of their most infamous exponents of dirty tricks, Floyd Brown, the man behind the TV adverts that did for Michael Dukakis, is launching a campaign to impeach Obama. What for? He’ll no doubt make something up later. Airtime on Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) will follow.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

The Republican Wrong – Time Travel

So Chicago failed to get the 2016 Olympics. Get over it? Not, it seems, just yet. There has been a variety of fallout: the right have been applauding – yes, applauding a failure of the USA – merely because the issue has been associated with Barack Obama, who they think is a socialist, or even a communist – these being more “acceptable” characterisations than admitting that they have a problem with an African-American in the White House.

But, bless him, the biscuit taking prize has to go to Glenn Beck, star of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) who argued that the Olympics would lose the USA money and so weren’t worth having. Problem was, Beck’s example was Vancouver, and he opined that the city had lost a billion dollars (whether US or Canadian ones, he didn’t say) on the Olympics.

Unless Beck has access to a time machine, this is a difficult one to stand up: Vancouver does not host the Winter Olympics and Paralympics until next year.

Some Of Us Are In This Together

Yesterday was the Conference turn of the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the seventeenth Baronet, and he told his audience repeatedly that “we are all in this together”. Except, of course, some of us are, and will be, but George and the other chaps will not.

But, so what? Why don’t I treat the bloke purely on his merits? Very good point – but the attempts to tell everyone that Osborne is just an ordinary kind of guy, and that it was all down to his dad making some money out of wallpaper, come from the party itself. I have no problem with his being the heir to an hereditary Baronetcy: it’s not me that is trying to sweep his past under the carpet.

So what kind of vision is George giving us? My first reaction was that he was trying to out-tough what had been announced the previous day by Alistair Darling, a sort of “your tough talk, and I’ll raise you another notch or two” poker game. Any cuts that stop measures intended to create jobs, or at least get young people into work, may be counter productive, so I hope the Tories have done their sums.

And, as Stephanie Flanders has posted yesterday, the numbers announced so far don’t give the whole picture: the inference of her analysis was that there will have to be more cutting and/or saving if a future Tory Government is to make its numbers add up.

Problem is, the more you reveal, the more ammunition you give to your opposition. This was the flaw in the late John Smith’s 1992 “shadow budget”, and it was this that lost Labour the General Election (forget Neil Kinnock’s Sheffield speech, or Sun front pages).

Like his boss Young Dave, Osborne is not daft. So, as the Tories are becoming fond of saying, it’ll be one policy at a time, thanks very much.

[UPDATE: Steve Bell has given his view on the Osborne speech here]

Tuesday 6 October 2009

The Last Day Out of Summer

It’s fun for families, satisfying for anoraks, and it’s inexpensive. The Wirral Bus and Tram Show comes round every year, at the start of October, bringing thousands of punters into Birkenhead for a nostalgic day out. This year, the weather had to have its ninepence worth – showers every so often until the afternoon – but an area of Merseyside which is probably grim and deserted through the winter was still busy.

The local transport museum benefited from being gifted, more or less, two trams built in Hong Kong, to the same spec as the former enclave’s “proper” fleet. These were joined on Sunday by cars from Lisbon and Wallasey. Heritage buses offered free rides. I encountered visitors from the south east sampling the trams, happily paying the one pound return fare.

That museum is a service provided through Government support. In the recent past, as monetary push has come to shove, such facilities across the Wirral have been under threat. Cutting such services would no doubt save from one budget, but then, the punters would not come if there were no Show. Moreover, the tramway runs throughout the summer months, and cuts there would mean even less punters coming.

Budget cutting is never as simple as some would believe.

Pre-Emptive Strike

The Party Conference season continues: this week is the Tories’ turn, and central Manchester has been suitably disrupted as a result. The area around Manchester Central (formerly G-Mex, originally Manchester Central) has been made one large secure zone, and mere mortals are being kept away.

So you might think that this week’s news headlines would be made by the Tories, but that idea was punctured yesterday afternoon by a call from Chancellor Alistair Darling for pay restraint, which would involve public sector workers on the kind of pay scales where there is generally more disposable income to hand.

So, was Darling’s timing deliberate? Yes, it was.

Why did he do it? Because he can.

So, just as the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the seventeenth Baronet, was making his bid for the next morning’s headlines with a proposal which may create more jobs, Darling pitched his intervention. There’s no rule that says you can’t go mischief making during opponents’ conferences, but it is generally not done. Why do it now? Any opportunity has to be taken by a party behind in the polls, and with a desire to keep hold of power.

The timing may indicate the return of Alastair Campbell – though probably not – or may have been orchestrated by Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole. No Labour source will be telling: best keep the Tories guessing. Moreover, the workers affected by the call for restraint know full well that, even with a change in governing party next year, they’ll do no better.

Interestingly enough, as the Beeb’s Stephanie Flanders has pointed out this morning, the measure with the most potential to reduce Government spending was not Darling’s pay restraint, but Osborne’s upcoming commitment to raise the state pension age by a year. But it’s the effect of a governing party chucking the odd grenade into the room that can distract the media.

Especially if the contents of the grenade are previously unknown.

Monday 5 October 2009

You Say You Want A Referendum (4)

A week, it has been said many times, is a long time in Politics, and the saying has been proved true over the last few days on the twin subjects of Europe and Referenda. Following the Irish Yes vote on the Lisbon Treaty, the Poles are showing signs of ratification, and the Czechs, whose President, Vaclav Klaus, got a personal letter from Young Dave recently, look to be also falling into line.

So, Dave, what’s a chap to do? After all, there he was promising a referendum, but only if Lisbon had not been ratified by all the EU member states. And now it seems that the Tory leadership has bowed to the inevitable. But London’s mayor, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, is suggesting that the electorate could still be “consulted”, and the Tories are making noises about “repatriating powers”.

As ever with the Tories and Europe, it’s a potentially explosive subject for the leadership. Cameron has been slagging off the EU for some time now, and this has had one effect – to raise expectations of not just a Referendum, but of the possibility of withdrawal. Now he has to continue to talk tough, but keep within the European mainstream.

However, the approach of “consultation” over “repatriating powers” has one potential snag: if there is to be any kind of vote, then there must be a prior campaign for or against the measures proposed. And any campaign will bring into the public domain something that has so far been missing from the Europe debate: information.

Once the Lisbon Treaty starts being discussed and debated on a factual basis, rather than being treated as a series of scare stories and screaming denunciations, the electorate might not remain so hostile. The same goes for the EU as a whole, and it’s interesting that the thoughtful Nosemonkey’s EUtopia blog has suggested that the Eurosceptic cause is actually damaged by the twin pincers of wild denunciation and proper information.

So, Dave, bring on your campaign. Let’s debate and discuss the issues, and do it through being properly informed.

Hunt the Policy

Who is the Shadow Culture Secretary? As Michael Caine might have said, not a lot of people know that. But they should: in a future Tory Government, the holder of this cabinet portfolio will oversee the BBC’s next licence fee settlement in 2012. The name in the frame right now is Jeremy Hunt.

And Jezza is in remarkably coincident harmony with James Murdoch, who has been Beeb bashing recently, as I observed. In a Guardian interview (the full version, including the hint that the Beeb could become a "threat to democracy", is in the printed edition), he talks of the number of Beeb executives earning more than the Prime Minister, and infers that the next licence fee settlement, if the Tories are in power, may be a time to enforce pay cuts on the Corporation. Just how much that kind of action might save, versus the damage done as those who can move elsewhere, is not discussed.

But what Hunt does quote are the numbers: the combined advertising revenue, we are told, of all commercial broadcasters in the UK is less than the BBC’s income. It sounds like an open and shut case. Until, that is, you realise that there are other sources of income available to those players in the commercial market: Sky, mainly through subscriptions, has a total income greater than the BBC.

And that makes the scene rather different: as I said before, Murdoch Junior was effectively urging that his most significant competitor be hobbled (not forgetting that Sky already has a significant stake in ITV), while playing the poor underdog.

So who is driving the policy? What is the quid pro quo with the Murdochs? It can’t all be down to telepathy.

Eye Told You So – 3

A warning for clickable link lovers: there aren’t any external ones in this post. To reach the recommended item, you’ll have to actually buy the publication. Old habits may get rarer, but they seemingly never die.

Previously, I’ve considered the hiatus that surrounded the Scottish Justice Secretary following his decision to release the supposed Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds. Now, the latest issue of Private Eye has summarised the case, and its “Lockerbie Special” appears on Page 29 of issue 1246.

For all those who still believe that the decision to convict al-Megrahi of the bombing was in any way sound, this should be recommended reading. I commend it to them, and to anyone else with an interest in the case.

Realignment of the Wrong – Revisited

The ruckus following David Miliband’s speech to last week’s Labour conference has carried on, not least because some of the representatives from Young Dave’s new Euro-Pals are to visit the Tory gathering this week in Manchester.

Yesterday, Tory chairman Eric Pickles demanded a retraction from the boy Miliband over the Foreign Secretary’s comments. More significantly for this blog, a regular commented that there was little of what those Stateside call backstory available on the issue, so I’ve had a little delve through the media archives.

Mention of the Latvian party first surfaced back in June when the Tories were putting together their new grouping in the European Parliament. At the time, they had four seats in the EP, but as there is only one of them in the European Conservatives and Reformers’ grouping, it must be assumed that the others lost their seats in the latest Euro-Elections.

However, the involvement of Fat Eric has come rather later: the comments upon which Miliband has seized come from an exchange on the Today programme on the 22nd of last month, where the question of Tory alliances in Europe was broached by the Lib Dems’ Chris Huhne.

The significant dissent from Pickles’ attempt to brush off Huhne’s criticism then came the following Monday in a comment piece for the Guardian by Efraim Zuroff, who is no mere pundit: he is the chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and a Holocaust historian. Zuroff is dismissive of the Tory view of this chapter in European history.

Given the authority of the source, it’s not surprising that Miliband has refused to back down.

Sunday 4 October 2009

When Irish Ayes? – 3

And so it came to pass, and I did post a prior warning: the second Irish Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty has yielded not merely a majority Yes vote, but a thumping 67% voted in favour, on a turnout increased from 53% to 58%.

There are no doubt a variety of reasons for the reversal in majority preference: the state of the domestic economy is one, and rebutting the No camp’s claims on neutrality, abortion and taxation another. The third, I am sure, is that there is a dislike in Ireland of others – particularly Brits – showing any kind of interference in their affairs. So the involvement of UKIP will not have gone down well.

What now for the Tory policy on Lisbon? If the Poles and Czechs ratify by the beginning of next year, Young Dave is going to find himself in one of those difficult positions. He won’t be helped by Dan, Dan the Oratory Man claiming that the party is considering offering the electorate a referendum on withdrawal.

As I previously pointed out, that’s something you can do only once.

Friday 2 October 2009

Too Windy A City?

That came out of the blue, didn’t it? Chicago has gone out in the first round of voting in the competition to be host city for the 2016 Olympics. Barack Obama won’t be happy: he’s given his personal endorsement. And nor will the city’s black and hispanic communities, who might have been able to look forward to sharing in the economic benefits from getting the games.

And, no doubt, the Obama haters will be crowing, well, for a week or two – until they pick up on another stick with which to beat the Prez they can’t bring themselves to accept.

So who’s left? Tokyo, which staged the games back in 1964, Rio de Janeiro, which hasn’t staged them before, and Madrid, which should really have got them in 2012, but for the slip by the man from Greece. I can’t offer an informed opinion on Tokyo or Rio, but Madrid could stage the Olympics tomorrow. And I mean literally tomorrow.

New Airport terminal opened recently, good road network, expanding high speed rail network, new city transport hub right in the middle of town at Puerta del Sol, and the workforce ready and able to do the job.

And now I see Tokyo has also been eliminated, so it’s either Rio or Madrid. Madrid gets windy as well, y’know ...

UPDATE: Yes, Madrid is also too windy for the IOC. It's Rio!

When Irish Ayes? – 2

Yes, today’s the day – not in the UK, but in Ireland. Here, the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is being held, as is required by the Republic’s constitution (that’s the thing we in the UK don’t have, well, not in writing, anyway). The polls suggest that the result will be a Yes vote, with the focus of ratification moving to the Czech Republic and its hesitating President, Vaclav Klaus.

And, as I mentioned a while back, this raises the possibility of the first President of Europe being none other than Tony Blair. I’ll stick the old neck out and make a prediction right now: the Irish don’t take kindly to the Brits sticking their oar into what is a domestic Irish election, and when the results are announced, the interference from folks like Nigel Farage and the UKIP crowd will not have helped their cause. Ditto the efforts of Murdoch the Interfering Foreigner.

Which would mean that all those who hate Blair the most would have spent the past few weeks spraying on their own firework. Serve them right.

Taxing Question

He may be Prime Minister come next May, so I’ve been paying attention to what Young Dave has to say on taxation, being someone who pays taxes. And he’s not impressed with what are termed “high marginal tax rates”, which translates as the move to hit the best off with a 50%, rather than just 40%, income tax rate.

So is he going to state unequivocally that the Tories will abandon the higher rate? Well, yes, but then the assertion has a suitable caveat. According to the Guardian, he’ll bin the 50% rate if it doesn’t raise any extra revenue. But then, any tax that doesn’t raise revenue might as well be scrapped. So why not go that bit further and commit to removing any tax measure that contributes so little that it’s not worth the candle?

Being a freelance worker, I have an acid test for Dave and his chaps: the measure that is called IR35. As I noted a while ago, this has raised a mere fraction of the money it was supposed to, and may even be costing more overall than had it not been enacted in the first place.

So, how about it? Or, perhaps, it will go quiet. Again.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Farewell to Morgan the Leader

There were occasions when Tony Blair came over as so determined to pursue a particular course of action that he appeared inexplicably wilful. The leadership of Labour in Wales was one of those occasions: first he went with the disgraced Ron Davies, then the singularly unsuitable Alun Michael. All the time he appeared to be against the most obvious, and most popular candidate, Rhodri Morgan.

And now Morgan, who has just turned 70, has decided that there will have to be another leader, as he is to step down. His decade in this particular “top job” has attracted neither controversy nor scandal. He has been, and remains, genuinely liked and popular. The only question that, for me, remains unanswered is why Blair was so keen not to have him.

The example he also shows is that of being able to know when to go, to leave when still at the top, and to do so of his own volition.

Parallel Universe

It is as if some in the press pack are reliving an old episode of Star Trek: the impression is given that, this week, there are two Labour Conferences going on, given the wildly different assessments of each speech, depending on which paper you read. Today has brought a superb example of divergence, as Foreign Secretary David Miliband has had his ninepence worth just before the Conference closed.

Let’s see how this played with the Maily Telegraph. Adverse comment about the length of the speech, telling how he went “beyond his brief”, and Pa Broon looking on “stony faced”. Sounds bad. But Toby Helm in the Guardian was in a more favourably disposed universe: the speech he saw was “powerful stuff”, with Miliband “going for the Tories over Europe”, and that Brown “listened intently” and gave his “most genuine smile of the Conference”.

But on one thing both papers are agreed: Miliband put the boot into Tory Chairman Eric Pickles, and a more deserving recipient would be hard to find. Fat Eric has said that the Latvian Waffen SS veterans whose exploits are celebrated by the Fatherland and Freedom Party (one of Young Dave’s new friends in the European Parliament) were merely “following orders”. Aye, and so were all of them, Eric, and we know what some of the Waffen SS got up to.

The Tories aren’t at all happy about the attack, and with good reason: Fat Eric has built part of his reputation on his supposed anti-racism, although the variety deployed in last year’s Crewe and Nantwich by-election was more of a talent for accusing opponents of racism at a time that will do them most damage, and on the most flimsy evidence.

But in any case, if Labour are heading for defeat, why don’t the Tories just smile and ignore the attacks? Ah well. A poll taken after Pa Broon’s speech earlier this week had the Tories down to 37% and Labour up to 30%. That’s a reduction in the Tory lead of more than half, and any number that gets Labour at or over 30% suggests an election resulting in a hung parliament.

Anything hinting that Tory support is at all soft will make them nervous, and will encourage Labour. It will all make for yet more excellent spectator sport.