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This is a blog of liberal stance and independent mind

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Wikileaks – Over The Top With Fox News

While the Guardian has been heavily promoting its exclusive on the Wikileaks revelations, the rest of the UK media and commentariat has varied from the disinterested to the sniffily dismissive, as might be expected, given that they didn’t get first dibs at the story.

And some over in north America are taking a thoughtful view, even telling that the whole business could be a good thing for the US in particular, especially if it makes the Obama administration think again about the wisdom of propping up the corrupt and weak Government in Kabul: this argument was put by Arianna Huffington in an appearance on Canadian TV yesterday.

But those in and around one media outlet had no thought of taking other than a black and white view of the matter: no prizes for guessing that this was the line coming out of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). Fox contributor and potential GOP Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was on the case with unusual speed (she normally takes a day or so to be prodded into action).

In actions which appear to have taken even the Daily Mail by surprise, Palin has ranted on her Facebook page that Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, should be pursued in the same way the US would go after an Al-Qaeda terrorist. Just to make sure nobody gets the wrong idea, she stated that Assange was “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands”.

And, in a move that suggests that Fox are in united front mode on this one, host Bill O’Reilly has called Assange a “slimeball” and has stated that “whoever leaked all those State Department documents ... is a traitor who should be executed or put in prison for life”.

Not that Fox would be trying to whip up a bit of hatred rather than take a measured and thoughtful view, of course. Perish the thought, eh, Bill-O?

Pot Meets Kettle In Dacreland

This blog does not call Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre “legendarily foul mouthed” without reason: Nick Davies notes in Flat Earth News that Dacre is known among his staff as “the vagina monologue” due to his frequent deployment of a particular characterisation, often uttered two or more times in a sentence.

So it was all the more surprising to see that the lead story on the Mail’s website this morning (correct at 1130 hours) is finding adversely upon the behaviour of Andrew, Duke Of York, who indulged in a “four-letter tirade” and an “expletive-laden rant” at a business brunch in Kyrgyzstan.

Moreover, the Mail tells that Andrew was “cocky” and “rude”, asserted that France was riddled with corruption, and claimed that the US don’t understand geography.

So that differs from Paul Dacre at a Daily Mail editorial conference how, exactly?

And Still The Birthers Come

It’s an established theme, but this time there was a new twist: another lawsuit alleging that Barack Obama does not meet the criteria laid down in the US Constitution to stand for the Presidency has been thrown out. The new angle is that this case doesn’t involve the increasingly tiresome Orly Taitz, and a new interpretation of that Constitution was attempted.

The lawyer acting for Charles Kerchner Jr started with the usual argument, that Obama did not meet the requirement of “natural born citizen”. But he then argued that what the Constitution really meant was also that both of Obama’s parents had to be US citizens. That’s not what the wording says, and the Supreme Court was duly unimpressed.

The case was thrown out without a response being sought from the Government, which means it was not considered to be even slightly serious. Perhaps the message will start to get through: Obama is a US citizen by birth, has resided in the USA for over fourteen years, and was over 35 years of age when he stood for the Presidency.

Therefore he meets the criteria, and is a legitimate President. End of.

Monday 29 November 2010

Alliance Of No Action – 4

The HS2 Action Alliance (HS2AA) appears concerned at the size of London, both in actual size and its size when compared to the next largest UK city. The figures then deployed are used to advance the proposition that HS2 may somehow make London yet more dominant. The comparison is then drawn with the absolute and relative sizes of capital cities around Europe.

Unfortunately, quite apart from ignoring the recent history and characteristics of three of the countries used for comparison, the figure fiddling I noted earlier has found its way into the argument. The figures that leap off the page are those for the French capital, Paris: there is no way that the population of this city is a mere 2.2 million.

The central area of Paris, within the city boundaries, does indeed have a population of a little over two millions, but that is because the authorities have declined to allow the disfigurement of the city and its parks and boulevards. Rather, population growth has occurred in the area outside the city boundary, to the extent that the Paris metropolitan area now has a population of just under 12 million – not far behind the 13.7 million of Greater London.

Moreover, that Paris metropolitan area accounts for over 25% of France’s GDP. It’s massively larger than the country’s next largest cities of Lyon (1.7 million) and Marseille (1.5 million). The HS2AA assert that London is uniquely seven times larger than its next largest neighbour, but it is not: Paris shares that characteristic.

There is a good reason for this “super primacy”: both cities have been national capitals for several hundred years, and their national boundaries have remained more or less constant over time. This is not the case with Berlin and Rome: Germany and Italy both became united only in 1870. Also, centres of manufacturing and commerce have developed away from the administrative centres of both countries, with the partition of Germany after 1945 also being a factor.

But what of Spain? Here, Madrid became the capital only in the 16th century, and the country has always seen a rivalry between the national capital and that of Catalunya, this being Barcelona. Not even three and a half decades of Francisco Franco could significantly change that, hence the comparative sizes of the two cities’ metropolitan areas – 5.2 million for Madrid, and 4.1 million for Barcelona.

As can be seen, the only more or less like for like comparison with the primacy of London is with Paris, and the two display similar size relative to their next largest neighbours. Moreover, there has been high speed rail in France since the early 1980s, and no sign has yet emerged that Paris is sucking the life out of Lyon and Marseille along those new rail lines.

Likewise in Spain, Germany and Italy. Red herring, HS2AA.

When Leaks Really Are Leaks

Recent leaks from inside the UK Government may not have been what they seemed at first, especially those emanating from the MoD. But the latest tranche of material from Wikileaks are the real thing: a raft of material leaked by someone within the US military.

And, as the Guardian’s Simon Hoggart pointed out on yesterday’s Andy Marr Show, all of the leaked material could be stored on a single memory stick – the kind that you might carry on your key ring. But opinion on the impact of the leaks has varied markedly.

Still at the Guardian, Simon Jenkins has no doubt that the action was justified, and makes one telling comment: “Anything said or done in the name of a democracy is, prima facie, of public interest”. He also stresses that the US State Department knew of the leaks several months ago, and therefore had plenty of time to pull anyone at risk out of harm’s way.

So all the righteous bluster telling that the leaks will endanger lives is just that: moreover, the recipients of the Wikileaks material have gone to considerable trouble to “redact” parts of the bundle of cables and other communications.

But, while the Guardian may be pushing the story, over at the Maily Telegraph a very different line is being taken. Deputy editor Benedict Brogan is utterly unimpressed by the material that has been leaked. In a characteristically sniffy post, he pours cold water on the Guardian, New York Times and other media outlets, agreeing only that there may be some embarrassment as a result.

This may not be totally unrelated to the fact that the Guardian and NYT are among those who have an exclusive on the Wikileaks material, while the Maily Telegraph is not. Sour grapes, Ben? Surely not!

Sunday 28 November 2010

Alliance Of No Action – 3

Another day, another perusal of the case put by the HS2 Action Alliance (HS2AA), and the discovery of yet more holes in their arguments. Moreover, those supporting the HS2AA cause, explicitly or otherwise, include at least one name that their publicity could well do without.

Proudly linked from the HS2AA website is a Maily Telegraph article by one Andrew Gilligan, the hack whose presence will not be gracing BBC News and Current Affairs any time soon, following his less than convincing performance in front of the Hutton enquiry, which contributed to the Corporation losing its Director General, along with a slice of its credibility.

Gilligan’s piece is a hatchet job on the Kent domestic services on High Speed 1 – the line from St Pancras International to the Channel Tunnel. In it, he turns on the hyperbole by asserting that operator Southeastern has “sabotaged” the existing service from London to places like Ashford in Kent. He further states that the fastest off-peak service to the latter used to take an hour, but now takes 80 minutes.

A scan of the timetables shows that, in the past, there was indeed one train an hour taking an hour for the journey. There was also one train an hour taking 67 minutes. Now, there are two trains an hour, both taking 67 minutes – this is a like for like comparison of journeys from London Bridge to Ashford International.

Where the 80 minute claim comes from is not clear: perhaps Gilligan had a problem transcribing his notes. He could easily have consulted the National Rail journey planner. And what bearing it has on commuters, who don’t travel off-peak (the article purports to show the inconvenience of commuting on HS1) is not clear.

What is clear is that citing a hack who can’t get his facts straight is not going to help the cause of the HS2AA. I did say holes in arguments plural at the top of this post, but that will have to wait until later, when I’ll look at the HS2AA figures on the primacy of London over the rest of the UK, the amount of space a high speed line might take up, and the noise it might make – or not.

Meanwhile, no dissent from my earlier findings on the HS2AA report (HERE and HERE) has been seen or heard. Draw your own conclusions.

Talk About The Weather

Today, like yesterday, is cold. Colder than the average for late November, and set to continue for some time yet. While some turn up the heating or stoke the fire a little higher, this is for others an opportunity to indulge in promoting the idea that Climate Change is not only not happening, but that the whole idea is part of a giant conspiracy.

The reason for the current weather pattern is that a high pressure area is sitting over Greenland – you can see this on the Met Office site – and it is effectively blocking the usual west to east track of low pressure areas, which in turn maintain a westerly or south-westerly wind direction across the UK. It’s that wind direction that gives us more temperate conditions than our northerly latitude might suggest.

The “blocking” high pressure area also directly influences the weather in the north-eastern USA: as low pressure areas track east, they come up against the “blocking” high and effectively get stuck. The air circulating around those low pressure areas gets colder as it passes over northern Canada, then heads back south and dumps large amounts of snow across the North-East corridor.

None of this, of course, involves any conspiracy, and nor does it disprove the established body of Climate Change science. There is only coincidence at work: the source of the current cold snap is the same as that which brought the cold start to the year.

And transient weather events in one part of the world do not disprove the fact of average temperatures rising over time: this year may well be the warmest ever, eclipsing even 1998, the previous warmest.

It may be cold here and now, but it’s warm elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. That’s all you need to remember when the next flat earther tells you that a persistent northerly wind in winter disproves established Climate Change science.

Saturday 27 November 2010

Apocalypse Averted

Over in the Pacific north-west of the USA, the security services have successfully put the lid on what could have been a very nasty terrorist bombing – well, if the bomb had been real, that is.

Yesterday evening was the occasion of lighting the Christmas tree in Pioneer Square, central Portland. It’s an occasion that brings thousands of people downtown, including many family groups.

Only this year, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, originally from Somalia but now a US citizen, had other ideas. A van parked close to the tree held what Mohamud believed to be a bomb, and he attempted to detonate it, apparently by mobile phone.

Fortunately, the FBI had been on the case, and ensured that the “bomb” was nothing of the sort. However, there needed to be an intent to detonate the device to provide the necessary evidence.

Portland's Mayor, Sam Adams, has blogged on the incident, and notes that Mohamud faces life imprisonment (period). Given the available information, it is hard to find sympathy for him. Hopefully, the point will also be made that Mohamud is one individual, not all Muslims.

Sadly, I suspect that this will not be universally reported. I’ll have another look at the case next week.

Friday 26 November 2010

Alliance Of No Action – 2

Since looking over the “report” from the HS2 Action Alliance (HS2AA) yesterday (available HERE [.pdf]), I’ve been putting together some detail to support my assertion that HS2AA have been putting forward misleading figures in support of their proposition.

Specifically, I concluded that the HS2AA comparison of journeys between five European capital cities and each capital’s five next largest neighbours was flawed simply because, for all the examples on the mainland, the distances travelled were so much further than for the UK. So the UK emerged from the comparison as “top of the class”, when it was not.

We need look no further than France to get an idea of the scale of HS2AA’s deception. Between London and the five UK cities in the HS2AA report (Page 25), the average distance is just 213 miles [Note that I’ve been through the mileages and even increased the figure for Bradford to cover the longer distance into the city’s Forster Square station].

Accepting the HS2AA figures for fastest journey times then gives a highly credible average speed of 88 mph. But when this is set against the French figures, that doesn’t look so good.

For starters, the average distance between Paris and its five next largest satellites is a whopping 418 miles, and yes, I used the distance to Lyon via the Ligne À Grande Vitesse, which is a lot shorter than the original route via Dijon. Again, taking the HS2AA figures for fastest journey times, the average speed is over 113 mph, and that includes Paris to Toulouse, most of which is not over the high speed network.

So France comes out rather better than the UK when actual speed is considered. And the misleading use of journey time is not the only HS2AA assertion that doesn’t stand serious analysis: they repeat the questionable assertion that rail travel only wins over air when journey times are less than three hours (Page 24).

However, Guillaume Pepy, who is CEO of French Operator SNCF, has revealed that increased airport security and often unreliable airline timekeeping has pushed the figure nearer to four hours. Indeed, he notes that the TGV offers a journey time of five hours from Paris to Perpignan, yet rail now has a 50% market share. Time on board is also potentially more productive than when flying.

Moreover, in a presentation he gave on March 17 this year, M Pepy restated the viability of the four hour rail journey when compared with air travel, and observed “UK is shaped for HSR”. Not much needed to translate that one, methinks.

Some Gave Thanks

In the UK, by this time of the year we are beginning to look forward to Christmas and the New Year. Not so over in the USA. So, partly because there are an increasing number of readers of this blog in that country, and partly to appreciate those things that make the two English speaking sides of the north Atlantic different, I’ve paused to think about Thanksgiving.

And, yes, I paused a day too late, as this year the celebration was yesterday, on November 25. Thanksgiving is an event that goes back a long, long way – it predates even the independence of the US by many years. The celebration has its roots in an act of goodwill between the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbours in the autumn of 1621.

The history, though, tends to get lost in the fog of commercial opportunity and the hijacking of the event by opportunists. Yesterday’s opportunist was the deeply unpleasant Rush Limbaugh, who appears to be getting more desperate as the years take their toll. Rushie was ranting at his President, whining about how much got paid over for Manhattan (but nobody in the real estate business ever did), and working “socialism” into his spiel.

Fortunately, Media Matters have also done their homework, and noted that the presidential address that so distressed Limbaugh bore a striking similarity to that given by one Ronald Reagan in 1981. Rushie would never diss Ronnie, so no doubt it was just a slip of the tongue.

Meanwhile, we in the UK will do our own version of familial overeating (and all the rest) next month. Then, as the USA has done today, the sales will start, signalling another irrational trek to the shops.

At that point, I will be thankful for on-line retailing. Happy holidays!

Thursday 25 November 2010

Alliance Of No Action

Yesterday, there was an adjournment debate on the subject of HS2. Many Tory MPs weighed in, passing adverse comment on the project. The text underpinning much of their analysis, and supporting evidence, is a report by a group called the HS2 Action Alliance (HS2AA), a title meant to show that there is something positive going on under their auspices, when there is nothing of the sort.

HS2AA do not indicate any political preference on their website, but one indication of their leanings is that the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA) is championing their cause. The TPA’s apparently unequivocal support did not, apparently, involve looking at the figures in the HS2AA report (see it HERE [.pdf]), or, if they did, they failed to notice the blatant misrepresentation.

So let me shine a little light on HS2AA and their analysis, specifically on Page 25, where they set out fastest travel times between London and the five next largest cities in the UK, with comparisons for Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Note that the list of largest UK cities includes Bradford (population under 300k) but excludes Edinburgh (population over 480k).

This blatant fiddling of the figures is achieved by taking the population of the Bradford Metropolitan District, which includes many satellite towns. It also makes the UK top of the class on journey times (Spain would otherwise occupy this place). Moreover, no account is taken of the distances involved: in all of the countries used as comparators, the average distance from the capital to the five next largest cities is further than in the UK.

In any case, two can play at that game: the Netherlands would come top by a long way if included, because it is a physically small country. That doesn’t mean it has a high speed rail network, which is the proposition HS2AA is trying to stand up for the UK. It is not included because HS2AA is cherry picking data to fit its findings.

Moreover, HS2AA takes no account of works in progress: their assertion that the UK is “top of the class”, even on their own highly selective figures, will cease to prove true the week before Christmas, when the Madrid to Valencia high speed line is inaugurated (figures for France and Germany will also change in the near future).

I make no comment on the rest of the HS2AA analysis, save to observe that if it is as shoddy as in Pages 25 and 26 of their report, there will be little problem in shooting a few non-trivially sized holes in it.

Defunding And Dodgy Evidence – A Stateside Lesson

The first student protest – the one where 30 Millbank, left mysteriously unguarded by the Met, got trashed – had hardly ended before the calls started for defunding. What that? Well, the thrust of this attack from the right leaning part of the blogosphere was that the National Union of Students (NUS) should no longer receive public money.

Why this should happen was not explained, other than the suggestion that staging a demonstration against the Coalition and its plans to hike tuition fees was some kind of clinching argument for the defunding call. But there is previous on this one, although not in the UK.

Calls to defund bodies that act in ways that are inconvenient to those of a conservative persuasion are a staple of politics in the USA. The most recent example of this was an attempt to defund National Public Radio (NPR) over their dismissal of Juan Williams.

This was no idle threat: the call to defund NPR became the first vote forced in the House by the GOP since the mid-term Elections. Fortunately for those seeking a more sane approach to politics, that vote was lost. It was not the case with a previous defunding case, that of ACORN.

The right had been after ACORN for some time: baseless stories were circulated suggesting that the organisation had “stolen” the 2008 Elections, that there had been massive and organised electoral fraud, and of course that it was all being paid for by Federal funds.

Then, by fortunate coincidence, came the “sting” videos, edited heavily and promoted by one Andrew Breitbart. The impression was given that ACORN were willing to become involved in human trafficking and prostitution. The videos were heavily promoted by Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

And it worked: ACORN is now effectively finished. But when the original videos were handed over – after a deal had been struck so that those involved would not be prosecuted – the conclusion was reached that no ACORN staff had been acting illegally. It was too late to save the organisation.

Breitbart has struck since, with the similarly heavily edited video that briefly did for Shirley Sherrod. But this is a purely Stateside phenomenon, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be too sure: the UK has plenty of media outlets – the websites of national newspapers, for starters – where this kind of “campaigning” could get a hold.

The NUS, and anyone else campaigning against the cuts, should hear alarm bells ringing when the “defund” cry comes. Because the dodgy video could soon be following right behind.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Greenhouse Report From Geneva

The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has issued its latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, with data gathered up to 2008. You can see the report HERE [.pdf]. It does not make comfortable reading.

A series of readings taken over more than 50 years at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii shows the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rising relentlessly. The report observes: “The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing exponentially at a rate of about 0.5% per year”.

The amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere had reached new highs by 2008. Total radiative forcing by all long-lived greenhouse gases increased by 26.2% between 1990 and 2008, and by 1.3% between 2007 and 2008.

The bulletin goes into more detail on the growth rates of greenhouse gases, with figures on relative versus absolute increases. Note that in almost all cases, the levels of these gases are increasing.

The report is just four pages long, and I commend it to anyone who wishes to take an intelligent position on the subject.

High Speed Meets Flat Earth – 2

As the bickering within the Tory party continues over the proposed high speed rail link from London to the West Midlands and beyond – which I considered yesterday – things are moving forward elsewhere in Europe, free of the flat earth mentality displayed by Conservative Associations around the Chilterns.

Until twelve years ago, the rail journey between Spain’s first and third cities, Madrid and Valencia, took well over six hours. Driving, road coaches and flying were preferable on time and convenience. All that changed when new and upgraded lines were opened between Albacete and the Valencia satellite town of Xátiva, along with a new fleet of trains: now the trip took just three and a half hours.

Rail began to take a far larger share of the market, so much so that longer trains had to be deployed to cope. But the journey time could not be reduced further, and neither could more trains be put on, because of the need to use the existing tracks at each end of the journey. The Madrid approaches were, and still are, busy with commuter trains and freight.

So an all-new rail line has been built to connect the two cities. This will free up capacity along the recently upgraded tracks for freight paths, especially into the Valencia area, where there is significant manufacturing industry, along with the demands of the port there. The area’s economy will be better placed for recovery as a result.

And so a successful passenger service will be withdrawn next month – in favour of a far faster one on the new high speed line. The fastest journey time between Madrid and Valencia will be just 95 minutes. That’s seriously fast, but then, across Europe, countries are serious about high speed rail, and the wider benefits for national and international transport capacity.

Alternatively, there is the stance of ConservativeHome, to stick head firmly in sand and hope that reality goes away. Time to get real, Monty!

Tuesday 23 November 2010

When It Became Dirty – 2

While reflecting on the rise of JFK from relative obscurity to the Presidency, I noted that there were other exponents of the political dark arts, notably his rival and then Veep Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ was the real successor to Franklin Roosevelt: Kennedy admitted that he was a realist, rather than a liberal. Johnson carried the torch of liberalism from the New Deal into the 1960s.

Johnson had entered the Senate after winning election in 1948 (he had served in Congress from 1937), but the manner of his primary victory was controversial. He did not win the initial ballot, and a run-off was ordered. LBJ then won the run-off, but many of the votes were cast in the names of recently deceased citizens. In Johnson’s defence, his opponent probably also indulged in fraudulent actions, but was less good at it.

Johnson ultimately became Senate Majority Leader – the post now occupied by Harry Reid – and there he became expert in knowing everything about his fellow Senators. Their preferences, influences, secrets and above all their record on the Hill were noted in intimate detail. LBJ knew just what it would take to turn any one of them when a vote was called.

And if a fellow Senator needed his personal attention, Johnson would administer “The Treatment”, a mix of haranguing, pleading, threats and general coercion administered in a fashion which today would be classed as In Your Face. He asserted that the only time he trusted one of his colleagues was “When I’ve got his pecker in my pocket”.

But Johnson also had a humorous side, although his scatological approach was disliked by JFK. Also, as J K Galbraith put it, much of Johnson’s humour was “lost in the laundry for public consumption”. So he did not say of Gerald Ford that the latter “couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time”, but rather said “That Gerald Ford. He can’t fart and chew gum at the same time”.

Sadly, even LBJ could not bring himself to stand up to the military, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. So it was that his domestic record – the “Great Society” reforms – was overshadowed by the quagmire of Vietnam and the subsequent fracturing of the Democratic Party.

Which brings us back to Tricky Dicky.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

Actually, the anniversary was yesterday: twenty years since Margaret Thatcher left 10 Downing Street after an occupation lasting more than eleven years. To some of us it felt like a lot longer. I have no doubt that many in the right leaning part of the blogosphere are remembering Mrs T rather more fondly, but would estimate that they are in a minority overall.

From the fraudulent 1979 “Labour isn’t working” poster – the Thatcher years saw the 1.3 million unemployed of that year increase by another two millions – to the ineptitude of the Poll Tax, she was cheered by the suitably monied and equally detested by those who had been dumped on the scrapheap.

And it wasn’t just the extra two million unemployed: the number on Incapacity Benefit leapt from half a million to over one and three quarter millions. If anyone is in any doubt as to where the benefit culture and generational worklessness began, they need look no further than the Thatcher years.

What positive things did the UK get from Maggie? Well, we did overcome a tin pot dictatorship in South America, but then, Thatcher and Co effectively provoked the whole business by leaving the Falkland Islands without the means to protect themselves.

Fortunately, the French rode to our rescue by making sure the Argentines did not get any more air launch Exocet missiles, but I don’t recall much in the way of thanks being publically offered to them.

We did get a positive engagement with the EU, contrary to some of the rhetoric and the newspaper reporting. Thatcher played hardball but always stayed positive on Europe, and by doing so, secured a better budget settlement for the UK.

But more than cancelling that out is the demonisation of local Government and subsequent centralising of power. This showed the vindictive side of Margaret Thatcher, as did the grinding down of trade unions and the spiteful removal of Thames TV’s franchise for daring to make a documentary raising inconvenient questions.

All of these minus points contributed to there being no outpouring of sympathy following Michael Heseltine’s supposed act of regicide. Those who still have fond memories of the “Iron Lady” are welcome to their views, but they would do well to wonder why so many others are either agnostic, or opposed.

High Speed Meets Flat Earth

There are rumblings of discontent within the Tory Party, and what is getting the Chiltern grassroots stirring is a railway. But this is no ordinary rail link – it is HS2. What that? Well, HS1 is the high speed line from London to the Channel Tunnel, and HS2 is to be the next such project, striking north by west from the capital, reaching Birmingham for starters, then Manchester.

This prospect has incurred the displeasure of Tim Montgomerie, stalwart of ConservativeHome, and yesterday he penned a piece with a “No to HS2” banner, which helpfully asserts that HS2 has no business or environmental case, and there is no money to pay for it. Now, I’m aware that Monty is a jolly clever chap, but this time he just doesn’t get it.

High speed rail links across Europe are not vanity projects: ever since the first French Ligne À Grande Vitesse – from Paris to Lyon – opened in the early 1980s, it has been about network capacity. It was not possible to go faster on the existing route between the two cities: in fact, the line could not take any more traffic.

Removing long distance passenger trains meant that there was more room for (profitable and environmentally sound) freight, and the passenger trains thus moved were speeded up and also became profitable, or more profitable. It was a win-win solution. Actually, make that win-win-win: there was also a significant reduction in domestic air travel.

What the French experience also taught was that building new lines was more cost effective and less disruptive than upgrading existing ones. Those of us who are regular users of the West Coast Main Line know all about disruptions due to upgrade work. The lessons learnt by the French have been taken on board in Spain and Germany.

Right now, there are freight operators who want to run more trains within the UK, but there is a finite amount of network capacity: some requests for train paths cannot be met. So that traffic goes by road, at a higher economic and environmental cost. Over longer distances, high speed rail would offer a credible alternative to domestic air travel, and increasingly crowded airports.

Contrary to the banner on Monty’s ConHome column, the business and environmental case for HS2 is sound. More goods moving by rail, less lorry movements on the road network, less domestic air travel, and faster rail travel too. And where does the money come from to pay for it?

Put it this way – if the money doesn’t get spent on HS2, rather more will get spent over time moving people and goods using increasingly congested rail, road and air links. The UK’s competitiveness will suffer, as will the environment.

But local Tory associations in and around the Chilterns will be happy. So that’s all right, then.

Falling Euro? No, Falling Standards

Just one detail can undermine the credibility of a hack’s copy. And then the reader becomes more quizzical, more sceptical, finding more holes in the argument. It’s something many will be familiar with when scanning the red-tops: the discovery of such copy in a supposedly quality paper for me is a recent development.

My latest discovery of these falling standards came in a scan of the Maily Telegraph website, in an article penned by the grand sounding Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. It has an equally grand title, telling of “EMU’s Máquina Infernal”. Sad to say, though, that this is a mere veneer of credibility. And the detail that gave the game away? The photo at the top of the piece.

It shows Porto’s Dom Luis Bridge, looking from the south bank of the Douro. But it’s a very old photo: the top deck of the bridge has for some time now been closed to road traffic as it is used exclusively by the city’s new Metro. And to the right of the city wall in the background is the Guindais funicular, recently built and linking the lower Ribeira district with the upper Batalha one.

What doesn't exist in Telegraph land

So what? Well, if you can’t even bother to get a photo that reflects current reality, all the grand titling and bylines won’t save your copy from a good fisk. Evans-Pritchard concedes that the Portuguese banking system is sound, yet compares the country with Ireland, where the banks were much of the problem. He states that much of the country’s debt is in private hands, but airily asserts that it will somehow fall on the taxpayer to repay.

Evans-Pritchard then asserts that Portugal’s banks have a dependence on external funding so he can compare them with Northern Rock. It’s a spurious comparison: the latter was hardly behaving responsibly when it urged customers to take on 125% mortgages. And whether his figures for current account deficit come from before or after this year’s budgetary measures (discussed HERE) he does not say.

Moreover, he paints Ireland as enjoying future growth (where have I heard that before?) and telling of an IT and pharmaceutical sector driving it. He fails to mention that Portugal, in places such as Coimbra and Oeiras, has similar and growing industries.

The future for Portugal may not be bright. But that is no excuse for sloppy and partisan hackery: Evans-Pritchard’s article has clearly been written to meet the Telegraph’s euro-knocking agenda. No wonder his paper is now known as the Maily Telegraph.

Monday 22 November 2010

When It Became Dirty

Yesterday’s fascinating JFK: The Making Of Modern Politics, fronted by Andrew Marr, was for me must-watch TV, even though some of the detail of Kennedy’s march to the Presidency was a little short on the shades of grey that inevitably surround modern history.

Specifically, the idea that “dirty politics” started in 1960 should not be given serious consideration, and in this one need look no further than the Republican candidate that year, one Richard Milhous Nixon. He had been Eisenhower’s vice President since 1953, and his character had come under scrutiny over time, notably by Democrat challenger Adlai Stevenson in 1956.

In a speech given in late October that year at the Gilmore stadium in Los Angeles, Stevenson had been brutally frank about the then Veep: “Our nation stands at a fork in the political road. In one direction lies a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win ... this is Nixonland. America is something different”.

Dicky didn’t suddenly become Tricky in 1968: the idea that Nixon was some kind of innocent in politics does not stand serious analysis. Nor was the covering up of Kennedy’s medical condition – he suffered from chronic back problems, as well as having Addison’s Disease - an original act. Franklin Roosevelt would never have been a candidate in 1932, let alone President, had his disability been known.

And then there was Kennedy’s religion: no Roman Catholic had ever been President, and I felt that Marr didn’t sufficiently stress the size of the mountain that had to be climbed to overcome the prejudice that JFK faced. Many believed that if he became President, Kennedy would have a Vatican hotline installed at the White House, and would instantly do the Pope’s bidding on any matter in which Rome had an interest.

The truth was, as ever, more complex: the Kennedys were not so devout, and in New York, his eminence Francis Joseph Spellman was backing Nixon. The Kennedy clan did not forgive him: the day after the inauguration, JFK observed “... here is Kennedy, the first Catholic President, being inaugurated, and Cardinal Spellman is having to watch it on television”.

And Kennedy’s rivals in the Democratic party weren’t above playing dirty, either: the man who became JFK’s vice President, Lyndon Johnson, knew all about the Dark Arts, which in part was why he was thus chosen.

I’ll look at LBJ in a later post.

Charging For The Buffett

While the debate continues over whether the Bush tax cuts should be extended for all, or maybe for all except the most wealthy, a contribution has come from a man who knows a bit about money.

Warren Buffett, head of Berkshire Hathaway, has pushed back against the idea that the well off should get the tax breaks because they alone can generate the mythical “trickle down” effect. Speaking with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, Buffett said that “trickle down” “has not worked in the last ten years, and I hope the American public is catching on”.

And Buffett stated directly that he should be paying “a lot more” in taxes. In this he has been joined by one Bill Gates. However, just how this will go down with some on the right will be interesting to see. One cable news channel, I predict, will not be reporting Buffett’s comments without some application of spin, or forthright misrepresentation.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Crikey Readers, The Sums Don’t Stack Up!

The debate over the “New Bus For London” rumbles on: the Guardian’s Dave Hill shed a little more light on the subject last week as he teased answers out of TfL’s Peter Hendy (and I am, as always, grateful for the name check). But the whole concept flies in the face of economic reality – which has been established over the last half century.

For starters, the seating capacity of the BorisBus, as it is now known, is poor when compared with other currently available vehicles: it will seat 40 upstairs, the same as the “long” Routemaster, despite being far longer. That’s the penalty of having two sets of stairs. Downstairs is far worse: just 22 seats will be available, and the combined total of 62 is two less than the original “short” RM.

Added to this will be the cost of a second crew member. Hendy states that this person won’t be a conductor (so will not handle cash). Neither will they be a PCSO, as the cost would be prohibitive. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that this role will be limited to supervising the rear platform entrance, which will be left open when that second person is present.

But that rear platform also takes away potential seating capacity, hence the miserably low 62 seat figure. A vehicle of that length anywhere else in the bus industry does not need two sets of stairs, nor a third entrance. So the idea that other operators will be rushing to order the BorisBus is pure fantasy.

Which brings me back to the vehicle’s size. TfL have insisted that my figure of 13.7 metres is wrong, but economic reality dictates that having a vehicle sufficiently long to get in more seats is the only way to justify two sets of stairs and three entrances. The longer vehicle would seat 52 upstairs and 34 down – a far better people mover, and remember, there is a precedent with the “Lion” double deckers in Berlin.

The problem with a bus of that length, as I noted previously, is that it would have a less than capital wide route availability. But at least it would not be a mobile economic basket case, provided the plainly daft “rear platform” idea is ditched.

Would cities around the world queue up to buy it? Well, the longer vehicle would at least have a chance, but you don’t have to do much travelling around mainland Europe to know that the market for people movers is either for trams, or for longer single deck buses.

Those would be bendy buses, of course. Everybody’s out of step bar our Boris.

Saturday 20 November 2010

What Ails Ailes?

To better understand the culture of organisations, it is often useful to start at the top, to examine the motivation and opinions of the people who drive the enterprise. And this week has brought an excellent example of this: the Daily Beast has been granted an interview by Roger Ailes, CEO of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

Ailes is a man with impeccable partisan media credentials: he was behind the campaign advert that featured a convict called Willie Horton. The advert helped George Bush Senior catch and overtake the unfortunate Michael Dukakis in the 1988 Presidential race. His attack dog approach has continued with Fox.

In the interview, with Howard Kurtz, Ailes makes assertions about his President such as “he had to be told by the French and the Germans that his socialism was too far left for them to deal with”. He did? I missed that. This may have been because Ailes is talking out of the back of his non-trivially sized neck: the accusation that Barack Obama is a “socialist” keep on coming, but standing them up with anything factual never follows.

Also, Ailes says of Obama that “He just has a different belief system than most Americans”, which is inclusive enough for the birther movement. The suggestion that his President is either not of a majority religious persuasion, or has roots outside the USA, is also not backed by evidence. But that is the Fox way. His hosts tend not to dwell on the factual either.

The attack dog approach continues when Kurtz’ interview touches on the sacking of Fox talking head Juan Williams by National Public Radio (NPR). Ailes describes NPR as “Nazis” with a “Nazi attitude” who are the “left wing of Nazism”, with the bizarre rant continuing as he accuses them of dismissing Williams for “not being liberal enough”, which they did not (background HERE).

And Ailes isn’t too well up on the way NPR is funded: his assertion that Government funding is keeping that network alive contrasts with the small fact that only 6% of NPR’s income comes from Federal aid. But Kurtz had got him sounding off, and the attacks came thick and fast. On the subject of Jon Stewart, and the stick Fox gets on the Daily Show, he sounded off enough to sell the pass.

Ailes doesn’t buy the idea that Stewart gives all cable networks a hard time: “he hates conservatives ... he’s crazy” complained the Fox chief, before letting slip “if it wasn’t polarised, he couldn’t make a living”.

And who, Roger, is doing the polarising? That would be you.

Friday 19 November 2010

Addressing The Derby Result

Rising from the years of redevelopment, Liverpool One is the city’s newest and largest shopping “destination”. Next door to the existing pedestrianised shopping area, close to the “Cavern Quarter” (minus the Cavern), and a short walk from the waterfront and the Three Graces, the dedicated shopper could spend a whole day there – and, no doubt, plenty of money.

So what can you buy? Every well known store is represented. There are celebrity guests, book signings, commemorative events, cafes, restaurants, a park complete with “leisure terrace”, and even an IMAX cinema. As Christmas approaches, there is lots of late night opening too.

But what about the ordinary bloke, maybe someone who supports a local football team? No problem: the Blue half of Liverpool is well served by Everton Two, the club’s 6,000 square foot “flagship store”. But why the name? Is it because there is another store elsewhere in the city?

Well, no. Someone on the Blue team has clearly retained their sense of humour, as will be revealed when the postal address of the store is considered: Everton Two, Liverpool One.

Now there’s a result.

Are The TPA Blind To Royalty? – 2

Since the announcement of the upcoming Royal Wedding, it has become clear to an increasing number of people that the event is going to have a cost attached, and that cost will in part be picked up by taxpayers.

As I posted the other day, this kind of expense, if incurred elsewhere in the public sector, would normally incur the wrath of the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA), but on this matter they have chosen to equivocate.

Even so, there has been much debate on the costs and benefits of the Royal nuptials. The fawningly monarchist Daily Mail wheeled out an “expertto tell that the boost to the UK economy could be as much as 620 million notes. But then again, like those Iraqi weapons and their supposed ability to reach Cyprus in 45 minutes, it might not.

But let’s take that 620 million figure as a best estimate of the economic benefit. Even if the wedding costs the taxpayer as much as 120 million, we’re still a whole half a billion better off ... aren’t we?

Well, sad to say, no we aren’t. Because, as the assembled hackery of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre have also eagerly told us, Young Dave has confirmed that there will be a bank holiday to mark the occasion. This, the Mail tells, is to allow us all to enjoy “a day of national celebration” (the Guardian was less certain of the bank holiday decision).

That bank holiday would carry its own cost, and fortunately the Federation Of Small Businesses (FSB) has quantified the amount. When the City of London suffered a white-out in February 2009, the quoted FSB figure for everyone taking a day off was a whopping six billions.

This would dwarf the supposed economic benefit from the wedding, and leave the UK economy around five and a half billions worse off. The TPA, though, has managed to miss this particular elephant in the room: their Campaigns Director Emma Boon told thatthere will be some benefit to our economy”.

As Winshton might have observed, “some benefit ... some economy”.

Thursday 18 November 2010

When Leaks Are Not Leaks – 6

The MoD seems to have a problem with leaks. That’s not mere opinion, but the conclusion reached by Young Dave when he appeared before the Commons liaison committee today. Anyone perusing this blog will know all about the MoD and leaks, and that I’ve previously concluded that Cameron should sack Liam Fox.

While the PM has still not been taking on board the basics of Machiavelli, the defence review has come and gone, the leak having “intensified the pressure” on the Government, although Cameron has concluded that it did not “materially” affect the outcome. And, all too predictably, there has been another leak.

This leak, like the last leak, found its way to the Maily Telegraph. This event, which no doubt is mere coincidence, enabled the paper to assert that the defence review had “badly damaged the confidence and morale” of military personnel. The leaked document was drawn up by senior officers, and civil servants working for Fox.

It was supposedly prepared for a “secret” Whitehall assessment of the defence review, which suggests that someone in the MoD has retained their sense of humour, as by now it is screamingly obvious that there is little in that department that remains secret for long – especially when it is in close proximity to the Defence Secretary.

Young Dave had Michael Heseltine quoted to him at the Liaison Committee, when he was asked if, as Tarzan had suggested, the letter from Fox to Cameron which went astray earlier had been “written to be leaked”. The question was straight-batted away, but it must now be obvious to the PM that he has to act, and act quickly.

Fox is clearly attempting to establish a competing power base, and Machiavelli is quite clear on that: do not allow it to happen. As I said before, Cameron has to sack Fox, and sack him quickly. Clem Attlee wouldn’t have hesitated. Neither would Margaret Thatcher.

Murdoch Is Served (25)

It’s in today’s Independent, and also the Guardian. But it’s nowhere to be seen in the Maily Telegraph or Daily Mail. Because there are still some in the Fourth Estate that adhere to the rule that “dog doesn’t eat dog”: there has been another development in the long running saga of Phonehackgate.

The Guardian piece is the one to watch, having being written by Nick Davies, who has been on the case of the Screws and its less than principled journalistic style from the start. Davies describes the scene in court yesterday when Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who was jailed for his part in voicemail interception, tried to stop any questioning which might incriminate him.

Unfortunately for Mulcaire, he did not convince Mr Justice Mann, who ruled that he must answer questions about who instructed him to hack into the mobiles of publicist Max Clifford and his PA Nicola Phillips. Moreover, the Met has been instructed to disclose information it has been keeping under wraps since it raided Mulcaire’s home back in 2005.

In that list of questions that Mulcaire has been told he must answer is at least one that names the Screws’ then news editor Ian Edmondson. The thought occurs that the questioning is getting ever closer to Young Dave’s chief spinmeister Andy Coulson – and to the rest of the Murdoch “family”.

Strictly Happening Stateside

Bruno Tonioli was aghast – in typically unsubtle fashion – as the Great US Viewing Public voted his preferred contestant off Dancing With The Stars last weekend. The programme is the Stateside version of Strictly Come Dancing (hence the presence of OTT-meister Tonioli), and has the same twist in the tail: the public vote.

In the UK, John Sargent conceded that he shouldn’t keep on being brought back every week when he wasn’t very good at the dancing lark. He bowed out gracefully. But former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe is made of sterner stuff, and she won’t budge as long as the public vote keeps her there.

So who is getting that vote in the US? Step forward Bristol Palin, single mother and more notably daughter of Sarah. She’s clearly full of enthusiasm, and it is hard to argue with her when she says she has been “working [her] butt off”. But the judges don’t think she should still be on the show.

Tonioli clearly wanted to see Brandy, who the public voted off, return: “I’m so disappointed” he told her. Meanwhile, the rumour mill is off and running, with a variety of conspiracy theories floated, usually suggesting that the Palin family, and perhaps the wider “Tea Party” movement, has organised to keep Bristol on the show.

That one I don’t buy: the Palins are well known across the USA, whatever viewers’ stripe, and viewers have clearly taken to Bristol. It’s the final next weekend.

[And the story has even made the Maily Telegraph]

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Are The TPA Blind To Royalty?

We the people still enjoy a good Royal wedding – or at least the broadcast and print media reckon so, because from the announcement yesterday that Prince William of Wales is to marry the future Princess Catherine of Berkshire next year, it’s been wall to wall coverage throughout.

The Government have led the way in lapping up the news: Young Dave was outside 10 Downing Street sharpish to pitch a few soundbites, telling how the Cabinet had been banging the table in approval. The thought might also have occurred, as recounted this morning by Big Al, that this could give cover to a whole raft of bad news.

But hang on a minute: Royal weddings cost serious money. In this case, it could be into the tens of millions, when the ceremony, security and clearing away is totted up. Moreover, there will inevitably be a day off for everyone, so that’s a further cost in lost productivity. Maybe someone should be pressing the case for a value for money approach.

Fortunately, there is always one group hot on any hint of unnecessary public expenditure, and that is the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (TPA). So what do they say about next year’s nuptials? Well, what they say is not exactly unequivocal. TPA campaign director Emma Boon has accepted that taxpayers wouldcarry some of the costs”.

La Boon also said “ordinary taxpayers should not be left with a bill fit for a king”, a selection of words that could have come from Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole, such is the amount of wriggle room it provides. And right now (1010 hours on Wednesday) the TPA website, while including the BBC report to which Boon contributed in its “Media Coverage” section, carries no statement on the forthcoming event.

Had there been a local or national Government organisation about to splash out an eight figure sum on a one off event next year, the TPA would have already gone into overdrive about it. Yet when that event involves Royalty, their best shot is to say that “it’s OK so long as it doesn’t cost too much”. Sort of. Yeah but no but.

Ditching any consistency to make sure you keep in with all those hacks and editors that obligingly reprint your knocking copy? Perish the thought, eh?

[UPDATE: this post has also featured on Liberal Conspiracy. My thanks as ever to Sunny Hundal]

Tea Party – Another Loser

The mid-term elections were a fortnight ago, so it may come as a surprise that the results have not all been declared as yet. One Senate seat is yet to be decided – although the result is in little doubt – and that is in Sarah Palin’s home state of Alaska. And it’s not looking good for the “Tea Partiers”.

The seat had been held by Republican Lisa Murkowski, and she was looking to run again. Then came the primary and a challenge from Palin-backed Joe Miller. Miller won, and his name therefore went on the ballot as the GOP candidate. Murkowski, however, was not finished yet.

The incumbent Senator fought a “write-in” campaign: voters could pick the Democrat or Republican nominee, or they had the option of writing in an alternative choice when casting their ballot. The support for Murkowski can be gauged by the fact that she is now in the lead on votes counted, despite voters having to add her name to the ballot, rather than just pulling the lever for Miller.

At close of play yesterday, Murkowski was 10,400 votes ahead of Miller with just a few hundred to count, although Miller’s campaign is contesting more than 8,000 ballots because of misspellings. Moreover, the Miller camp is threatening a federal lawsuit, which gives the impression of desperation. He’s lost, and he knows it.

Suggesting electoral fraud, hinting at a demand for a recount, and resorting to law will not endear Miller to his electorate. Barring a minor miracle, Alaska looks to be about to return the first “write-in” Senate victory since 1954, with the “Tea Party” notching up another failure.

Now all the “Tea Party” needs is to get their pick onto the GOP ticket for the 2012 Presidential Election. That is unquestionably a race worth their losing.

[UPDATE: the Alaska GOP has now called the race for Murkowski and asked Miller to concede]

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Healthcare – Where No Means Yes

You may not have heard of Andy Harris before. After today, you may never hear from him again. Harris is one of the House’s new intake, having won in eastern Maryland for the Republicans. He stood on, among other issues, repealing Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms.

So it might be thought that Harris would be against Government mandated healthcare. But then, he arrived at the Capitol and found that his subsidised healthcare would not start until 28 days after taking office. He was not pleased. And then he asked if he could buy insurance from the Government to cover the 28 day gap.

Government health insurance? But that was what the so-called “public option” was about, and Harris had been against that. Fortunately his spokesman was on hand to apply a little spin: this, it was explained, was not a display of hypocrisy, just Harris pointing out that Government mandated healthcare was inefficient.

And as to Harris’ question asking what he would do without 28 days’ healthcare, well, there are tens of millions of US citizens who would be able to answer that one for him: they’re the ones who have to manage without healthcare for 365 days of the year, every year.

Remember, the USA spends almost twice as much of its annual GDP on healthcare as the UK, and gets less good results. I may restate that fact more than once in the future.

[One more minor fact: Harris’ day job is in, er, healthcare]

Making A Start

Cuts. Countries across Europe are doing them. Austerity is the new watchword. But when economies recover, the demand for goods and services will return. And those services include travel – better and faster travel. In mainland Europe, and maybe in the UK, that means the growth of high speed rail links.

Yes, it’s one of those counter intuitive moves – carrying on with construction projects, even though times are bad, because by the time you’re finished, those times are predicted to have improved again. In London, that means completing Crossrail.

In Spain, it means keeping on with rolling programmes of rail infrastructure improvements, and maintaining the schedule of building high speed lines: the cross city tunnel in Barcelona is “in progress”, and the new line from Madrid to Valencia opens next month.

But next door in Portugal, the financial squeeze has been if anything more severe: the Third Tagus Crossing has been put on indefinite hold, and high speed links from Lisbon north to Porto and beyond are also on ice. But the first part of the high speed jigsaw will be going ahead, it was announced yesterday.

Public Works minister Antonio Mendonca told Parliament that the line from the Spanish border at Caia, to Poceirão, will begin construction next year as planned. As I noted recently, having the new line’s endpoint well out of Lisbon need not necessarily stop the introduction of high speed services, given the availability of variable gauge technology.

And by the time that new line is in service, maybe the will and the funds will be there for that Third Tagus Crossing, and hence the next piece of the jigsaw. One step at a time – and, of course, you have to make a start first.

Monday 15 November 2010

Who Will Oppose The Cuts?

The title isn’t intended to diminish the efforts of elected politicians who may question the agenda now being revealed by the Coalition, but is intended to ask where the more visible opposition to the cuts might come. Were the student protests merely a one-off? Will the incidence of violence last week put others off? What reaction may come from the right?

From personal experience, the short answer to those three questions is No, No, and effectively None. I will explain.

The student protest had an easily identifiable target: rising tuition fees. That rise could be easily quantified. That made the task of getting students to attend the march easier, and with the NUS organising and co-ordinating the attendees, the protest could then be focused on that march.

Other groups may not as yet know what the Government has in store for them, with the effects not yet felt. They may not have the organisational nous of the NUS to hand, but if there is a sufficient swell of opinion, they will get organised, and their dissent will be heard.

The ruckus at Tory HQ last week may have involved serious or even fatal injury if that fire extinguisher had hit someone. Fortunately it did not. Otherwise, there were some incidents of vandalism and any injuries were minor: all could have been prevented had the police protected the building as they did the Lib Dem HQ in Cowley Street.

The latter point needs making: I’m not going to suggest that wilful damage to property is acceptable, but that the police did not move to cordon off 30 Millbank is a major factor in the subsequent disturbance. In any case, that there was some incidence of violence will not stand in the way of future protests: the Poll Tax riots didn’t stop the opposition to that tax.

What of any backlash from the right? Counter demonstrations featuring the comfortably off can be ruled out, and the usual nutters on the fringe such as the BNP and EDL will have enough of their own supporters suffering the effects of spending cuts. They won’t be going in to bat for the Coalition.

And the right wing press and blogosphere? Consider this: how many scalps have they taken from last week’s protest? Precisely none. And as long as the wider public are broadly sympathetic, or at least not hostile, that state of affairs will endure, whatever the rhetoric of the usual suspects.

A warm and dry summer – we haven’t had one of those since 2006, so maybe one is due – could result in the Government having a seriously difficult time.

Yikes Chaps, It Might Be Too Long!

Last week saw the unveiling of a full size mock up of the so-called “New Bus For London”, which is not, despite the publicity, even remotely like the Routemaster. Occasional mayor and regular collector of “chicken feed” from the Maily Telegraph, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, was clearly in his element with the first incarnation of what has already been dubbed the BorisBus, BorisMaster, or BozzaMaster.

The bus that Bozza is so happy to champion has a total of three entrances and two sets of stairs, which coincides with an existing design, the “Lion” double deckers in service with BVG, who provide bus, tram and U-Bahn services in Berlin. The difference is that the “hop on, hop off” rear entrance of the BorisBus will only be open when the bus is carrying a second crew member.

So when the new bus doesn’t have a conductor on board, using the rear stairs will mean passengers having to walk half the length of the lower deck when boarding or alighting. That will impact on dwell times: an arrangement similar to the Berlin vehicles, where driver only buses still have three doors in service, two of them aligned to the stairs, would be far more practical.

And the length of that deck is non-trivial: the BorisBus, just like the Berlin buses, scales 13.7 metres, which in old money is just over 45 feet. That’s half as long again as the “long” Routemaster, and two thirds longer than the “standard” one. The bendy buses that Bozza so detests are yet longer at around 18 metres, but because they’re, well, bendy, they are no more difficult to get round corners than an 11 metre long “normal” bus.

So it should not surprise anyone when the discovery is made that the BozzaBus has a less than capital wide route availability. Health and Safety judgment has yet to be passed on that rear entrance, and it’s still unlikely that any operator outside London will place an order.

Which would give a parallel with the Routemaster: only one operator outside the capital ordered the bus, taking just fifty vehicles.

Bring Me Sunlight – 4

Last year, I looked at the Sunlight Centre For Open Politics, which claimed to be inspired by the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, DC. Their website – never any better than slow in response – promised things like “resources for bloggers”, but a look at those involved showed that it was run by Paul Staines, who blogs under the alias of Guido Fawkes, and his tame gofer Henry Cole (aka Tory Bear).

Moreover, although this organisation initially engaged the services of Christopher Galley, the former civil servant who gained brief notoriety as an informant of Tory Damian Green, he soon vanished from the scene. In fact, little was heard of the group until the name came up during the General Election campaign, concerning some local knocking copy aimed at Pa Broon’s former confidant “Auguste” Balls.

Sadly, despite the best efforts of Staines and Cole, Balls won. The realisation may have dawned on the pair – but probably not – that the money thrown at trying to produce a so-called “Portillo Moment” could have been deployed far more effectively in support of more marginal campaigns.

So what now for the Sunlight Centre For Open Politics? A look at their website now shows that the response has degraded from merely slow to no response at all: the site is “currently unavailable”. So much for “resources for bloggers”, then: it looks very much as if the “Open Politics” are in name only, and that this is merely a means for Staines and his gofer to pursue their campaigns against anyone that their respective blogs fail to nail.

Which, as I’ve said many times, will, without the help of the supposedly despised MSM, be all of them.

A City Of The South In The North

For anyone who checked out the blog during my visit to Barcelona at the start of the month – daytime high of 21 Celsius and mainly sunny – the city tour is now on Fotopic.

The usual sights are covered, so there’s plenty of Gaudi. The Cathedral, Ramblas, and Montjuic Park are present. And so are some less touristy locations, like the Parc Industrial, the “Barcelona Gherkin” aka Torre Agbar, and the three chimneys at Sant Adria de Besos.

Cable cars and the city, Montjuic

There’s one thing that appeals about the latter places: unfortunately, Barcelona has become very popular with the city break crowd, and as a result the best known sights are so busy that sometimes you can’t even move freely – let alone take photos free of your fellow tourists.

There’s a link at the lower right, but you can go directly to the tour HERE.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Remembrance Of The Ties

The passing of the Queen Mother had a memorable sideshow of Beeb bashing: as then newsreader Peter Sissons broke the news wearing a dark tie – but not a black one – the obedient hackery of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre went into froth overdrive. And Dacre doesn’t like the current crop of political leaders, any more than the BBC.

So the neckwear on display at today’s Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph in Whitehall might have been under scrutiny from the Mail’s finest. Who will arouse the Dacre ire? The adverse comment, I reckon, will descend on Corporal Clegg and Mil The Younger after they both displayed ties that were less than black.

Yes, it’s a service of remembrance, not a funeral, but that is not the point for the Daily Mail: their motivation is to trash the reputation of anyone in the public eye not meriting the approval of their editor. Clegg and Miliband both sported blue ties, and not a dark or sombre blue either.

Does it matter? Not to most people. But Paul Dacre, it must be remembered, does not interact with many ordinary folk apart from at his day job. He is chauffeured from home to his London apartment at the start of the week, then to the office. None of this rail or tube nonsense enters his world.

In the words of the Ford Fiesta advert, maybe he should get out more.

Maybe Sarah Shouldn’t Run

Although the Senate is still in the hands of the Democrats, the GOP took the House convincingly in the mid-term elections. So it should be no surprise that Republicans are looking to the next US General Election in 2012, for a crack at the presidency. Their only problem is to select and field a credible candidate.

A number of names has been pitched, but for some, their past record has not been inspiring: Mike Huckabee failed to get the nomination last time round, Newt Gingrich ultimately failed in his head to head with Bill Clinton, and Dick Cheney left the vice presidency with appalling approval ratings.

But there is always Sarah Palin. The former Alaska governor did give John McCain’s campaign a poll lift in 2008, but it didn’t last, and it didn’t stop Barack Obama – who will be the Democrats’ candidate in 2012. Even so, the debate on the right is about whether or not she will run. But she would need to appeal to more than the GOP base.

So a new poll from Gallup will not make good reading for Sarah 2012. Her overall unfavourable score now stands at 52%, those numbers breaking down to over 80% of Democrats and 53% of Independents, and she would need to appeal to both. And Palin’s favourable numbers are equally poor.

A full 80% of Republicans score her favourably, but among Independents the number falls to 35%, and right down to 15% of Democrats. Those numbers will inevitably come under pressure in the heat of a presidential campaign, when a candidate must set out their ideas, and how they would govern.

So maybe the GOP would be better advised looking elsewhere for their 2012 pick. The problem they have is that, right now, no-one else looks any better.

Saturday 13 November 2010

Murdoch Is Served (24)

As Nick Davies put it in his excellent book Flat Earth News, “dog doesn’t eat dog”. The Fourth Estate’s finest tended in the past to gloss over the occasional less than perfect behaviour of their competitors. So it was at first with Phonehackgate, with Davies’ current home, the Guardian, often a lone voice.

But, with the news that the Metropolitan Police have assembled a new file of evidence, which they have now passed to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), it seems that other papers are no longer so reticent: the Maily Telegraph has an article on its website today on the affair.

Both papers note that the police action follows their interviewing of Young Dave’s chief spinmeister and former Screws editor Andy Coulson. They are joined today by the Daily Mail, and also the Independent. But a scan of the Sun’s website suggests that they are not featuring the story.

Why might that be? The thought did enter that Andy Coulson is part of the Murdoch “family”, and that any further revelations – or even prosecutions – would be most unwelcome for Rupe and his troops. Also, those reporting the story are lined up in opposition to the full takeover of BSkyB by News Corporation.

What a coincidence!

Inmates Invited To Run Asylum

You don’t have to look to know that you’re at the entrance to Crewe’s Grand Junction Retail Park: the smell gives it away. That smell – so reminiscent of the last time I ate the stuff, sometime in the mid 1970s – comes from the KFC outlet which occupies its own building, right next to all the passing traffic. Junk food at bargain prices washed down with equally unhealthy fizzy drinks is the order of the day there.

You would not expect companies that serve up such junk to be in the vanguard on giving Government advice on healthy eating: they would be unlikely to state the obvious, such as avoiding their own brand like the plague. But it seems that is exactly what Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has in mind.

And along with KFC, he’s invited McDonalds, PepsiCo (who also own Walkers Crisps), Kellogg’s of breakfast cereal fame, and Mars to give their thoughts on how to tackle public health issues. It does sound, as has already been said by concerned campaign groups, rather like putting the tobacco industry in charge of smoking policy.

True, the folks from Which? And Cancer Research UK are also slated to be on board, but so will catering provider Compass, whose offerings to unfortunate schoolchildren have included the notorious “Turkey Twizzlers”, which so infuriated Jamie Oliver (and which contained what kind folks call “mechanically recovered” meat).

Perhaps this is what Young Dave and his fellow jolly good chaps mean by their strategy of “nudging” people into changing their habits. But with food industry players handed the chance of rewriting the health guidelines, the only nudge that will be seen in Crewe is visitors to the town centre being nudged into McDonalds, and those at the Retail Park similarly shunted into KFC.

More mess for a future non-Tory Government to sort out, methinks.

Friday 12 November 2010

Not Just Barking Beck – 2

Earlier, I looked at the rhetoric of the increasingly wayward Glenn Beck, “star” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). The bad news is that Beck’s ranting in the intervening period has descended into suggesting that liberal philanthropist George Soros had helped send Jews to “death camps”. It’s totally untrue, and has brought condemnation from a variety of sources.

Beck has already asserted that Soros is “notorious for collapsing economies ... around the world”, and that the USA is his “next target”. But this week, as Beck has targeted Soros as a “puppet master” at the centre of some kind of conspiracy whose goal is a “one world Government”, the rhetoric has got nastier. The Anti Defamation League has found adversely on Beck.

Michelle Goldberg, writing for the Daily Beast, described Beck’s attack on Soros as “a new low on American television”. But Fox is standing by their host, with senior VP Joel Cheatwood speaking up on his behalf. Will the matter end there? I doubt it – because Beck cannot, by nature, let it. He will keep on at Soros.

There is one way that this tirade can be stopped, and that is for Soros to take Beck to the cleaners. That he has not yet done so suggests that Soros does not consider Beck’s rantings to warrant serious attention. Given that Beck has now suggested that Soros is himself anti-Semitic, as well as all the conspiracy and Holocaust junk, the time may have come to force Fox’s finest to stand up his story in court.

Until that happens, the Beck rhetoric will get more severe and hysterical, the hate speech and wild allegations will worsen, and the demonising will sharpen. For the sake of his own reputation – and, yes, maybe his own safety, given the case of Tides and Byron Williams – Soros cannot continue to stand aside.